Branagh's magical, mistreated 'Flute'

Times Music Critic

On JAN. 1, 1975, Swedes huddled around their television sets. The overture of "The Magic Flute" began, and the camera panned across the audience of a Baroque theater, finally landing on a child. Hundreds of thousands of hearts were warmed on that cold Nordic night as the camera periodically returned to the little girl documenting her involvement in Mozart's opera. Since then, countless more hearts have been warmed by Ingmar Bergman's "The Magic Flute," commonly considered the greatest opera film of all time.

Kenneth Branagh's version of "The Magic Flute," which he filmed 30 years later as a wacky World War I drama, has not had a similar fate. It was made in 2006 as part of an extensive international celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday. That spring, just as the Salzburg Festival was gearing up to stage every one of Mozart's 22 operas and when no civilized city with an opera house was without Mozart, Branagh's film was shown at Cannes, out of competition but with hopes of attracting distribution. It didn't succeed.

Shown at the Toronto and Venice film festivals four months later, Branagh's "Flute" was not disliked, but it failed to generate much enthusiasm. Since then the film has had limited release in parts of Europe, Asia and South America and has been moderately well received. French and British DVD versions have been released. But the film has never been shown in the United States, and there is no word about a domestic DVD.

On a trip to Amsterdam this summer, I spotted in a record-store window a supposedly special three-disc Dutch edition of the film in cheesy packaging being sold at a bargain-basement price. This was not a good sign. But I purchased it.

Now, I am at a loss to understand why this film has been marginalized. Branagh's "Flute" is a joy.

Nothing about the production, which had a $27-million budget, is marginal. Branagh may not be the hottest name in Hollywood, but he is hardly unknown or without respect. His Shakespeare films are, for me, among the liveliest and certainly the most musical representations of the Bard on the big screen. In his most recent feature, he provides fresh insight into Anthony Shaffer's 1970 play "Sleuth," with a sophisticated screenplay by Harold Pinter and pitch-perfect performances by Michael Caine and Jude Law. That film came out a year after the "Flute" and was not neglected. Indeed, the DVD was popular enough that I needed more than one trip to Blockbuster to find a copy.

Similarly, Branagh's "Flute" fascinatingly re-imagines Mozart's opera. All the music is intact and excellently conducted by James Conlon, music director of Los Angeles Opera. The English actor and humorist Stephen Fry translated the German libretto into colloquial English and supplied pertinent new dialogue. The cast is attractive. Young characters are played by young singers. Good teeth must have been a priority of the filmmaker.

Branagh's vision of the Great War is awful and magical at the same time, which is very strange and surely British. The film opens with bright sun, lush fields and bouncy soldiers in the trenches. This is cinema with a smile as big as Bergman's, but the sweetness doesn't last. During the overture's development, soldiers charge, shells blast, bodies fly. No composer dealt with darkness and light quite like Mozart, and Branagh is on continual lookout for every mood flick.

Branagh has a deft touch with Mozartean contrasts between magic and realism. Half fairy tale, half war drama, the film also goes its own way. Sometimes Branagh supplies reason where Mozart relied on fantasy, and other times he takes the opposite route. The dragon becomes threatening poison gas. Papageno is the birdman whose pigeons test the air underground. Actual flutes, though, fly. The Queen of the Night arrives atop a tank and later darts through the sky like a kinky Tinkerbell. Surreal lips fly in space. So do Mary Poppins umbrellas.

Visually, this "Flute" is exuberant if occasionally incongruous. Fluid camera movements are surprising and delightfully musical. The updating is mostly clever, such as by making the three ladies who discover Tamino sexy nurses in flamboyant costumes.

Youth must be served

Conlon spoke the other day about working with Branagh from Chicago, where he was conducting Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio" with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival. The "Flute" casting, he admitted, required a measure of "hashing it out with Ken and making compromises," given Branagh's insistence on very young people for every young role. The conductor did not have the final say.

But clearly Conlon approved of emerging Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, a dreamboat Tamino who will appear in the L.A. Opera production of the opera this season. For Pamina, Branagh rejected what Conlon described as several young, attractive and proven singers for an even younger, more beautiful and completely unproven British soprano in her early 20s, just out of school and without a professional resume. There is no question that Amy Carson looks the part. She brings a smoldering sensuality to the screen and a fresh-as-morning-dew voice. I hope she isn't being pushed into the big time too soon, but her career has been launched and she already has impressive gigs in England.

Rene Pape, today's bass of choice, is a sonorous, curious, cultish Sarastro who leads the opposing army and sends the captured Tamino on a secret military mission. Tom Rangle, as Monastos, Pamina's lecherous jailer, is not a comic rapist but appropriately dangerous. Benjamin Jay Davis is Papageno as American good ole boy. Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova is a dazzling Queen of the Night, her quivering lips and vicious teeth shot up close as she reaches her high Ds.

Every director has problems with the symbolism at the end of "The Magic Flute," especially with making the trials by water and fire feel meaningful. Branagh offers nice touches. The couple are caught in a battlefield and flood. But opera is opera, and Branagh knows better than to artificially tie up all loose ends.

For all his updating, he also trusts Mozart in a refreshingly old-fashioned way. The singers mostly can be understood. Fry's text is, for all its liberties, singable. But the ensembles and choruses often cannot be understood. Branagh seems not to care. Mozart did not care either. Music's magic suffers from explanation.

The Dutch special edition DVD is, in fact, the movie and two CDs with a different mix of the performance. The CDs are slightly disappointing. One hears flaws in some of the young singers that don't register on screen. This really is a film and needs to be seen.

Undoubtedly Branagh's "Flute" will find its way to DVD in this country someday, and it probably will eventually get on the cinematheque and museum circuits. But it's already 2 years old, and Hollywood's attitude toward it is disgraceful.

At a time when filmmakers are being invited into the opera house in record numbers and when the Metropolitan Opera and other companies can sell out HD broadcasts to movie theaters, taking a chance on the "Flute" hardly seems like taking a chance. Lots of movies don't do well. They're junk, and everybody knows it from the start. This "Flute," on the other hand, could be a surprise modest success.

In the meantime, the British and French versions can be ordered online from Amazon and other sites. They require an all-region DVD player, which is a useful gadget for any opera lover, given the quantity of European and Asian opera DVDs not released in the States. Another option is to download one of the programs that remove country coding from discs played on your computer.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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