Ear Supply: In the Trenches

Seattle Weekly, 25 June 2013
By Gavin Borchert

Despite its wartime setting (WWI, from the look of the helmets), all is sunny as the overture opens in Kenneth Branagh’s lovely, imaginative 2006 film of Mozart’s 'The Magic Flute': handsome tommies in brilliant cornflower-blue uniforms, bunnies and butterflies, a violin-bearing phalanx of soldiers bow-synching to the soundtrack.

But then rifles go off and men fall, and Branagh stirs together the light and dark of all archetypal fairy tales.

Mozart’s score is unchanged, though, among other details, hero Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) runs onscreen fleeing a cloud of mustard gas, not a dragon, and the Queen of the Night (Lyubov Petrova) enters riding a tank.

Things only get more fanciful from there: “Der Hölle Rache,” her big Act 2 death-defying aria, is staged as a hallucination on a windmill. And in the deeply moving finale, blasted battlefields turn magically verdant.

The excellent English adaptation of the libretto is by Stephen Fry (“excellent,” in opera-translation terms, means never egregiously stupid). James Conlon conducts; René Pape as Sarastro leads the admirable cast.

Two questions linger: Why did it take so long for this film to be viewable in America; and why, if you were going to film an opera, would you pick one that Ingmar Bergman turned in 1975 into one of the most beloved opera movies ever? Or so I wondered before I watched Branagh’s version — enthralling and charming enough to stand deservedly alongside Bergman’s classic.

Released on DVD June 11, Revolver Entertainment, $19.98.

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