A scene from THE MAGIC FLUTE, directed by Kenneth Branagh for Les Films du Losange.

The Magic Flute (2006, Kenneth Branagh)

With the exception of The Tales of Hoffmann, I’m not really familiar with any other efforts to adapt an opera to film. I guess there are those Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptations (right?), but I don’t think of them in the same sense–the artistic one. Branagh’s The Magic Flute has more in common with his Hamlet then it does Hoffmann (and, I imagine, Phantom of the Opera).

Branagh sets his adaptation in a World War I setting–there are similar uniforms and trench warfare–to fine effect. The film opens with Branagh going wild with CG–something he does later–but he does it well. The film requires an indulgent suspension of disbelief immediately and it’s hard to get upset about the little CG butterfly. But after this strong opening, in the first act section, The Magic Flute falters.

Technically, the section is solid and all the singing is good. But the film introduces way too many characters in way too little time. Worse, the film takes a backseat to the concept here–the singers have English lines, but it’s frequently impossible to understand them. Whether or not any important narrative information is being conveyed doesn’t really matter–the impression exists, so it’s hard not to feel like one’s missing something. It isn’t just the unintelligibility, it’s also the way Branagh structures the first act. The Magic Flute feels very much like a gimmick–a filmed opera with CG; there’s technical competence–technical excellence, really–but without any visible artistic impulse.

Until the big trick.

I’m not sure it is a trick–I browsed the opera’s page on wikipedia but didn’t look too close–I might have just missed something. But there’s a reveal about halfway through the film, a little earlier, and immediately, everything changes.

Without trying to get through exposition–an impossible task given the storytelling techniques–Branagh and his cast get to immerse themselves in the material. It all gets very simple and very predictable and joyous to watch.

As the leads, Joseph Kaiser and Amy Carson have incredible chemistry, though the majority of their scenes are apart. Renè Pape is spectacular–he might have some of the best scenes. Benjamin Jay Davis, in the comedic sidekick role, gets grating rather fast. All of the singing is good, like I said before, as is the straight dialogue delivery.

That dialogue confused me, since I always thought operas were all singing, no dialogue. Here Branagh uses the dialogue sparingly and only in essential scenes. But there is one section at the end when I got impatient waiting for people to start singing again.

The Magic Flute has an iffy opening, a great middle and a long close. Not being familiar the opera, I don’t know if Branagh cut anything, but he should have done something with the ending. There are two or three false endings. Though they tie up all the subplot threads, the subplots aren’t important anymore after the big finish.

It’s hard to describe the middle of the film’s accomplishment; usually, artistry doesn’t show up late. It’s either present or not. But The Magic Flute is a different situation.

A lot of it is probably Branagh’s best work as a director–and it reminded me not to discount him.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh and Stephen Fry, adapted for the screen by Branagh, English liberetto and dialogue by Fry, based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, liberetto by Emanuel Schikaneder; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Michael Parker; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Simon Moseley; released by Les Films du Losange.

Starring Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), René Pape (Sarastro), Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), Silvia Moi (Papagena), Tom Randle (Monostatos), Ben Uttley (Priest) and Teuta Koço (First Lady).

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4 thoughts on “The Magic Flute (2006, Kenneth Branagh)”

  1. You gave useful information concerning The Magic Flute. From the personal point of view, I would like to say that I have been planning to rent the DVD i n question. I think here in Finland nobody has paid attention to the film, which, as far as I know, has not been shown in the film theatres in this country. Generally speaking, people share the idea that a good opera film has not not yet beeen made .In my opinion Losey´s Don Giovanni is, however, a good one. I think the best is Michael Powll´s The Tales of Hoffmann. In this old film(1950) the music has been in a way bettered through certain additions as for example, by loans from Wagner+s Rhi negold.
    As for the spoken dialogues, the exchange of non-musical words is, after all, included in the the score and libretto of The Magic Flute. Among operas,there are also some other exceptions in this respect, as for instance, Berlioz´s Benedict and Beatrice, in which the so called resitative singing is substituted by spoken word. .
    Thank you very much for you interesting comments which certainly made one think of other opera films. The point is, however, that many of the DVDs that are not films but photograped live performances from different opera stages, clearly surpass the quality of essential opera films.On the whole, the cinematic effect is unfortunately partly missing in these documentations of opera performaces.

  2. There are plenty of film adaptations of opera!! Otello (w/ Lawrence Fishburn as Otello and Ken Branagh as Iago), Carmen (w/Domingo) and many more!!! I think that because the Met is now broadcasting its operas in the theaters live, that somehow they got Branagh’s Magic Flute from being shown in this country.

  3. “The Magic Flute” has dialogue because it’s supposed to, even in the original German. It’s a “singspiel”, a type of 18th-century opera that pre-dates operetta. It’s sort of like an eighteenth-century musical with operatic voices.

    There is a surprise revelation, and although I haven’t seen this version, I have seen the Ingmar Bergman one, and I have a recording of the opera made in 1962, and if the Branagh film follows the story, the revelation comes at what is supposed to be the end of the first act – that is, about halfway through. It does change the way you look at the characters.

    However, people who see this film cold turkey probably should familiarize themselves with the story so that they will understand just what’s going on. A hint that I can give, without giving away the whole plot, is that one “good person” is revealed to be bad, and vice versa.

  4. @Rita Mathsen
    You’re confusing the opera “Otello” with a film version of the play”Othello”. The 1995 film version of the play did have Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, and Irene Jacob. However, the film version of Verdi’s opera “Otello” starred Placido Domingo, Justino Diaz, and Katia Ricciarelli.

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