There’s not much magic left in Kenneth Branagh’s “The Magic Flute.” Relocating the 1791 opera to WWI, dousing it in widescreen CGI and adopting a hard-edged approach that worked for “Hamlet” but squeezes most of the lightness and fun out of Mozart’s featherlight masterwork, Branagh has wrought a “Flute” for high-end aficionados only. Lavishly mounted and well sung, but thin on charm and spontaneity, pic is likely to hit a bum note at general wickets. Casting of singers with no general marquee value will further limit pic to specialist engagements, though ancillary should be much more magical.
Branagh showed he has a real feel for music and movement with “Much Ado About Nothing,” and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with much of the staging in “Flute.” Alas, he and co-scripter Stephen Fry have simply loaded too much on the framework of the fragile, populist opera, which Mozart intended as an entertainment for the masses.
Opera buffs shouldn’t throw away their DVDs of Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 TV movie. With a reported $27 million arsenal at their disposal, Branagh’s big tech guns have more firepower, but Bergman’s pic still wins hands down on agility, character and sheer likability.
Film’s opening shot, which accompanies the overture, is mightily impressive but also a harbinger of CGI to come. In what is seemingly a single six-minute take, camera tilts down from a blue sky to summery meadows and swoops along WWI trenches on both sides of an imminent battleground before flying up into the clouds with a squadron of biplanes and then down to Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) as he strides into battle on the ground.
Use of CGI is almost seamless and gets the movie off to a great start. As act one begins, Tamino, lost and wounded, is discovered by three nuns in spotless white uniforms (Teuta Koco, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse) before he passes out. He then “wakes” in some parallel universe in which the story takes place, the three women now transformed into field nurses.
Pic follows the exact architecture of the opera, with the trio sending Tamino on a mission to rescue Pamina (Amy Carson), daughter of the strident Queen of the Night (Lyubov Petrova), who’s been kidnapped by the evil Sarastro (Rene Pape). Tamino is accompanied by Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis), as a comic sidekick, and given a magic flute to help him.
Especially in the first half — film plays both acts without any intermission — Branagh rises to the occasion with several startling ideas. The Queen of the Night is intro’d riding atop a tank, and the coloratura section of her first aria is lensed in close-up profile, her mouth and throat contorting like a werewolf baying at the moon. Her act-two showpiece is more over-cooked, with rapid-fire editing mimicking her coloratura, though Branagh does cleverly use it to sneak in a smidgeon of backstory.
Several of the other visual ideas — a pullback to show mass graves, the trench scenes, the “greening” of a WWI killing field — recall the Richard Attenborough-helmed “Oh! What a Lovely War” (1969) as the pic becomes more of an anti-war message movie than a paean to humanistic values. In Branagh and Fry’s treatment, the opera’s explicit references to Freemasonry are ironed out, with the guiding figure of Monostatos (Tom Randle) a man of the common people rather than some priestly authority.
That extra moral weight, plus the film’s flashy bigscreen values, are more suited to Romantic opera than an 18th-century Singspiel, and they bend Mozart too far out of shape. The comic relief of Papageno’s character becomes one casualty, and his famous duet with Papagena (Silvia Moi) loses almost all its charm.
Petrova makes a good Queen of the Night and Carson a substantial Pamina, but the two male leads, Kaiser and Davis, are rather colorless.
Sound quality is OK, though many of the English lyrics aren’t easily comprehensible.
Conductor James Conlon, music director of Los Angeles Opera for 2006-07, draws full-bodied playing from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.