Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I'm now a Branagh-phile

Mr. Kenneth Branagh's movie vision of The Magic Flute is set to open in US theaters today, June 11, and through the generosity of Revolver Entertainment your faithful reporter has been allowed to view an advance (in the US) copy. Some of you might have intuited over the years a special fondness I have for this opera, so I was thrilled when they asked me to view the DVD and post my impressions.

Three Ladies, Tamino, Papageno
Courtesy Revolver Entertainment
The brilliant Mr. Branagh and his librettist, magical comic actor, television host, and writer Stephen Fry, have set their movie version in World War I, in Flanders' fields, it appears, reliving the horror of trench warfare. This leads to the use of clouds of tear gas as the serpent that begins the opera and Sarastro's castle as a hospital. I've made it quite clear where I usually stand on updating a story from the remote past to the merely distant past, but in this case the usual stated purpose--new insights into character and power structures--does not go completely unmet. And through movie magic we are able to see the effects of good winning over evil--sorry if that's a spoiler--immediately, as the war-torn fields transition very quickly from the setting of All Quiet on the Western Front to the setting of Bambi.

What's that you say? How was the singing? I was quite pleased with all of it. From the lead couples all the way down to the minor roles, all the singing actors were quite accomplished. Who can fault René Pape as Sarastro and Joseph Kaiser as Tamino? Both are experienced in these and countless other roles, and a pleasure to hear and to look at! The Queen of the Night was Lyuba Petrova, veteran of the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and current star in top-level houses around the world. I liked her manipulative desperation, and I especially liked how the melismatic tirade of the "Der Hölle Rache", the infamous second act aria with the high Fs, became more of a mad scene than we normally see. Papageno was Benjamin Jay Davis, who might have been the only American in the cast. Although he was charmingly goofy as Papageno the birdman--the one who used a canary to test the air after gas attacks--I can't say I was fond of his overuse of a Southern accent. But I've seen that accent used before when directors want to portray naiveté. Or stupidity. Amy Carson was a pleasing and beautiful Pamina. The Three Lusty Wenches Ladies were well sung and acted by Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan and Kim-Marie Woodhouse. A delightfully evil Monostatos was Tom Randle, himself a veteran Tamino in many European houses.

Spoilers: Bits I especially liked included having Sarastro himself as the Speaker, adding poignancy to his interview with Tamino. Both Monostatos and the Queen have touching moments when Sarastro offers the hand of peace and forgiveness, and one can almost see the internal deliberations as they realize they simply can not live in such a world, and choose not to. And who wouldn't adore veteran British character actress Liz Smith as old Papagena?

Lovers of Die Zauberflöte, hie thee (or ye) to see this movie. Whether you love it or not, you will certain see some new things in it, and hear a lot of perfectly beautiful singing.


Gale Martin said...

I am not that big a fan of The Magic Flute, but I LOVED this. Thank god for no stinkin' puppets. I loved the adult overtones. Well reviewed, Taminophile!

Taminophile said...

High praise indeed from you, Gail!