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THE MAGIC FLUTE: A Film by Kenneth Branagh
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sung in English | Running time 134 minutes

Lyubov Petrova – Queen of the Night
René Pape – Sarastro
Tom Randle – Monostatos
Joseph Kaiser – Tamino
Amy Carson – Pamina
Ben Davis – Papageno
Teuta Koço – First Lady
Louise Callinan – Second Lady
Kim-Marie Woodhouse – Third Lady
Silvia Moi – Papagena (young)
Liz Smith – Papagena (older)

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Libretto: Adapted by Stephen Fry
Producer: Pierre-Olivier Bardet
Costumes: Christopher Oram
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Music Arranged and Conducted by: James Conlon

Last month I attended an assaig general (i.e., dress rehearsal), at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The opera was a new production (new for them; it had seen the light in Munich) of It turco in Italia. It was delightful. Rehearsed to a fare-thee-well, with action that seemed motivated rather than pasted on, it was blessed with comedy that was actually funny. Every tool was pressed into the service of characterization. (For example, the trampish tendencies of a married character were efficiently communicated when she even flirted with stage hands.) The question kept arising in my mind: did the director devise action that skilled singing actors were realizing, or did he call forth behavior appropriate to these particular singers? Rarely having seen anything approaching this level of precision of stage-work in New York opera houses, I was mostly asking myself: how can we more consistently get this level of professional acting out of first-class singers, in well-prepared ensemble productions?

A moment in IL TURCO IN ITALIA in Barcelona

A moment in IL TURCO IN ITALIA in Barcelona

Well, Sir Kenneth Branagh has an answer. Bring to bear on opera the techniques of film-making, with its multiple takes, the luxury of directorial nursing in the midst of actual performance, and the lack of necessity for repeat performances every few nights. Now, of course, Branagh is not the first to take opera to the medium of film — nor even the first top-drawer director to do it for Flute. Igmar Bergman of blessed memory did that unforgettably, and in his country’s Swedish vernacular. Branagh’s movie is in English that Stephen Fry came up with (who, being a master of so many trades, probably wouldn’t have fatally shocked us if he had imitated Mozart’s original librettist and sung the role of Papageno too).

The story is moved to World War I and loses little or nothing by the transfer. The original plot is murky at times, and though this rendition is sometimes mystifying, too, its vitality and general entertainment value are never in question. If you like Branagh’s Shakespeare, you’ll like his Mozart.

As for the cast: admirer of Joseph Kaiser’s singing though I’ve been, I’d never have thought he would inhabit the screen as though he’d been playing leading-man roles for years, while all the time singing with a consistency and clarity that do him and his teachers and mentors great credit. His performance is above praise in every respect.

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Another advantage of a film is that luxury casting of a sort uncommon in a chain of performances in an opera house becomes feasible: hence the welcome appearance of a major star like René Pape as Sarastro.

With regard to the rest of the singing: the level is remarkably high all through by the singers not otherwise singled out here. Of course certain things become easier on film than in the opera house (Sarastro’s lowest notes and the boys’ trio often not being up to an ideal volume in many live stagings), but one never feels that there is undue manipulation or that any vocal effects are owed to switches and dials.

The orchestra employed is of course one of the world’s virtuoso ensembles, but even at that its eloquence here is constantly striking. There simply doesn’t seem to be a false move musically. (And it’s lovely to have another crack at the overture during the closing credits. It almost sounds new after all the action that has transpired since its first hearing.) Though the scenery ranges from battlefield to field hospital to all kinds of outdoor realistic and imaginary locations, the acoustic for the music is, wisely, kept as that of a particularly elegant concert hall.

There are things that any hardened opera fan will bridle at here and there, but no matter; this is a perfectly valid retelling of a story that has always been a little problematic outside the house and atmosphere of its premiere. It is playing in cinemas around the United States this week, and I hope that the comparative neglect of it in this country so far will be overcome, if only by word of mouth from the people whose ears and eyes have been charmed by this consistently entertaining film. It takes its noble music seriously and always renders justice to Mozart’s miraculously expressive achievement.

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