This Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening, listeners to classical music in Arkansas will have the opportunity to see Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 English-language film adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and that’s because it will mark its theatrical release in the United States with a screening in Hot Springs, as well as other locations around the nation.
Retaining the complete score with vocal parts, and performed by both established Metropolitan Opera singers and relative unknowns led by James Conlon with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, this ‘production’ is accessible and worth the trip, for lovers of the work as well as people with no musical background whatsoever. The libretto is a balanced and well-rhymed original translation by English super-celebrity Stephen Fry, though it is important to note that most of the explicit references to Freemasonry have been edited so as to seem more familiar ("O Isis und Osiris" is now "Oh Spirit of Our Fathers...").
The film opens with the Overture, set to scenes of an enormous First World War battle with sweeping images of bomber planes, tanks, explosions, and a rush of men. The lead hero or lieutenant, Tamino (played by Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser), is soon overwhelmed, and Mozart’s opening scenes are faithfully modified—the serpent is poison gas, and the three maidens to the Queen of the Night arrive as angels dressed as nurses. Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis) is not clothed entirely in feathers, but is a bird-reconnaissance specialist, though he is no less comedic and absurd as the original (he dedicates his life to speaking ‘pigeonese’).
Both are eventually approached by the Queen of the Night (the pint-sized Lyubov Petrova), who arrives on a tank and whose shouts are figuratively depicted as the explosions of real cannon amongst the desolated landscape. Her entrance is notable also for the undulations in Mozart’s low strings and the rotations of the tank’s tracks pulled around its many wheels. She convinces the heroes that she has been abused unjustly by the holder of the keep Sarastro, who has stolen her daughter, whom Tamino has already fallen in love with. The Queen gives Tamino his magic flute and Papageno his magic bells (here a music box), and both are determined to rescue the Queen’s daughter, Pamina.
What follows is true to the original story, with its totally inexplicable transitions, and the naiveté of its heroes and heroines. One soon realizes that the enemies of the battlefield are not of any particular allegiance, nor in any specific war per se, but very loose metaphors of violence and the pity of war generally (though one would like to see more development here, one can only work with the libretto available!). The High Priest of Virtue Sarastro (played by the most famous of the cast, René Pape) is the Lord of a Downton abbey-esque Chateau-turned-hospital, but still operates according to principles of supreme asceticism and mysticism.
While the juxtaposition of light and comedic music with the carnage of war may be a questionable (and possibly failed) attempt to convey drama and gravity, it has a curious way of being totally appropriate to the theme of the opera, which is of course that music (given as a weapon by the evil Queen) cannot ever forsake its nature, which is to bring peace. It also becomes clear near the end that the film is a reflection on the death of Mozart himself, and how his music persists immortally. (In fact, the production was part of many commemorative efforts during the 250th anniversary of his death.)
Following the screening on Sunday, Branagh will participate in a live Q-and-A session with audience members, via webcast from London.
This very-English production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” will screen at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 9, and 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, at Carmike Hot Springs 10. You can purchase tickets and find directions here:
If you can’t make the screening in Hot Springs, the film will also be available on DVD for the first time in the United States on June 11.