Review: The Magic Flute (2006)

The Magic Flute (2006)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh | 135 minutes | music | Actors: Joseph Kaiser, Amy Carson, René Pape, Lyubov Petrova, Benjamin Jay Davis, Silvia Moi, Tom Randle, Ben Uttley, Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse, Rodney Clarke, Charne Rochford, Peter Wedd, Keel Watson, Vanessa Ashbee, Cristina Catalina, William Dutton, Amy Humphreys

If there is one opera suitable for filming, it must be Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’. The cheerful story, the colorful characters and the beautiful music guarantee a few hours of top entertainment. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman relied completely on these qualities when he produced a thorough adaptation with ‘Trollflöjte’ in 1974. Bergman did little more than capture a theatrical performance, and that turned out to be more than enough. British director Kenneth Branagh takes a much more ambitious approach with ‘The Magic Flute’. Branagh moves the action to the trenches of World War I, where Private Tamino searches for Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. By completing a number of trials, Tamino not only wins the hand of the beautiful Pamina, but immediately brings the war to an end. Such a modern staging is commonplace in the theater world. Pieces that have been performed in the same way for centuries will eventually wear out. Placing such a piece in modern times not only refreshes it, but also immediately proves the timelessness of the themes.

A modern staging as the basis for a feature film seems less logical. While the theater audience is made up of a relatively small number of enthusiasts, film is much more of a mass medium, with most visitors not really familiar with opera. To introduce them to this art form, a traditional staging seems much more obvious. All this would matter less, if such a modern staging makes sense. He doesn’t in this case. The original Zauberflöte is set in a fairyland with its own laws and logic. In such a fairytale land, when a prince hears of a kidnapped princess, he naturally goes to rescue her. In the historical reality of the First World War, such a choice is utterly ridiculous. Moreover, the historical setting ensures that the opera loses its carefree cheerfulness and gives the film a pretension that it can never live up to. The fact that the story cannot be tied in this way only makes it worse. That is doubly unfortunate when you see that Branagh is inventive enough in the detail elaboration and visualization. The use of CGI makes everything look equally spectacular, from the battlefield to Sarastro’s fortress. Moreover, the acting performances are more than adequate and the musical is also good. On the other hand, the free adaptation of the libretto is not always successful (‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ is called here ‘I Need a Fluffy Chicken’).

All in all, Kenneth Branagh missed a huge opportunity with this. A traditional staging, but using CGI and all sorts of other modern tricks, could have made this adaptation an unforgettable viewing and listening experience. Branagh’s bizarre ‘The Magic Flute’ is now nothing more than an entertaining mess. With emphasis on the last word.

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