Tuesday, July 08, 2008

I speak in fluent pigeonese
and charm the birds right off the trees.

There are certainly things to love about living in Santa Fe. For instance, one can spend the afternoon here, at Nambe Lake in the Pecos Wilderness,

and a couple hours later be enjoying this:

"And just what the **** is that?" Well may you ask, reader! That, in our case, was the U.S. premier, no less, of Kenneth Branagh's film adaption of Mozart's Magic Flute. (Well, strictly speaking it was the other U.S. screening, immediately after the true premier, the true premier being aimed at an audience more easily parted with large sums of money than your host.) The thing's been out in Europe since late 2006, but we New Worlders have hitherto been denied its charms. Pity, because it's quite something. See for yourself: the following highlights reel gives a pretty good taste, though it may be a little spoiler-fraught.

If spoilers don't bother you at all, you can see the opera's climax here, as well as much more on YouTube. Or you can visit the official site (Warning: sound. Lots of sound), which has a ton of ridiculously entertaining Zauberflötery and affiliated nonsense, if you have a fast connection and lots of patience with Flash animation.

It should be evident by now that Branagh did not bowdlerize the opera's sheer harebrained looniness, not in the least. Indeed, he positively delights in it, and puts the might of modern film technique, with quite a bit of CGI, behind driving that looniness. This is the Magic Flute that you imagine when you put on a good recording immediately after seven shots of tequila. (Er, yes, I have taken part in experiments along those lines; indeed my first exposure to the opera, via the Bergman film, was very much in that vein.) Often the effect is wonderful; sometimes it's more than a little obnoxious. But it's a remarkable achievement to have filmed a watchable, English language Zauberflöte while leaving the score whole, entire and in its traditional sequence. Large applause is due to writer Stephen Fry, who adapted the libretto into wonderfully successful, natural and fun English doggerel. That adaptation also included enough cuts and streamlining of the spoken dialogue to tame the piece's running time and allow the musical numbers to flow with uninterrupted momentum.

The biggest stumbling block in any Magic Flute production is, of course, what the heck to do about all the Freemasonry stuff. For all the film's surreality and goofiness, Branagh and company actually hit on a pretty good solution by putting the drama into a World War I-ish setting. Whereas in most productions the Realm of Night seems like a pretty genial sort of fairy kingdom, Tamino finds himself in a bizarre, dark, upside-down and dangerous wartime world (and we get the Queen of the Night in a leather trench coat, moonlit, riding a Mark IV tank: much to like there!). In contrast, Sarastro and his guys are running a hospital for the wounded and shell-shocked and a refuge for the displaced. René Pape gives an excellent performance as Sarastro, portraying him not as the usual moralizing patriarch full of blowhardish occult wisdom, but as a younger and more charming man who learned wisdom from charitable service, who's still capable of playing a joke and flashing a wink. His dedication to "peace and the brotherhood of man" and all that rot therefore comes across as being a lot more practical and honest than we get from most Sarastros. Tamino and Pamina's trials are not just hoops of abstruse symbolism through which they must jump, but are intended to actually achieve some good for a world at war. The result is still plenty hokey, but it's a lot easier to take it seriously and rejoice in the lovers' triumph than it is to respect the cult initiation the is the finale of traditional productions.

For all its virtues, the film does partake of the vices of early 21st Century cinema. For all the possible imaginations that CGI can bring to life, it does have a tendency to take over the show, an inmate in charge of the asylum. Branagh yields to the temptation towards gimcrackery just a little to often, thereby trivializing some passages that needn't be trivial, even in such a bagatelle of a plot. In particular, his treatment of all the Queen of the Night's coloratura passages leaves a lot of inspiration to be desired. But there are some brilliant shots in here too, for instance the passage with the Armed Men in the Act II finale: as the tenors and basses intone their creepy, marmoreal parallel octaves, we see first blackness, then a slow zoom out divulging a human iris spread across the screen. The iris grows to an eye, then two, then three, then many with chanting mouths interspersed, everything else shrouded in sackcloth, until the screen is full of singing anthropomorphic sandbags forming the wall of a trench.

Why do we like The Magic Flute? Seriously, why? It's not an easy liking to justify, particularly to someone who doesn't agree. The plot is sprawling and incoherent, it's undeniably silly, it has genuine continuity problems, and it's loaded to the gills with hideous symbolism which may well have no internal consistency, and even if it does, who cares? The thing's a mess for critics. And yet it endures, eternally popular in a repertoire which has cast off many weightier works, consistently numbered among the four great operas of one of humanity's three or four greatest composers. Why?

Well, because it's a heck of a lot of fun, and that's a justification that not many opera's can make without qualifications. That and the music, and these things of course go hand in hand. The Magic Flute is a brilliant composer at the very top of his game, a man for whom the barrier between artistic imagination and technical execution has all but dissolved. The music sparkles and flows and leaps and dances from scene to scene, always at the right pace, almost always leaving us craving more (not praise which can be lavished freely on the da Ponte operas). It's Mozart's least repetitive opera, and many of it's finest moments are gone as soon as we begin to feel them. It has the most ensemble singing, always great fun in Mozart's hands. I'd say it's his most rhythmically vigorous opera, probably because it was in German; it has a Teutonic delight and vim that even his best Italian works don't quite match. And above all, it doesn't force us to take it too seriously. I have always maintained that Papageno is the opera's true main character, and Mozart's ability to impart upon a contemptible, petty, trivial buffoon of a birdcatcher music of such good humour, honest humanity and ultimately tenderness and redemption is the great mark of his unique genius. In Mozart, even the most trifling bagatelles are lit with divine sparks.

What truly makes Branagh's movie worthwhile is that he usual stays out of the way of all these virtues of the opera. He keeps the weight of each scene balanced in its correct proportion. He doesn't shy away from the silliness, which would be well-nigh impossible and would destroy the work if it were achieved. He doesn't bother to explain the many (probably unexplainable) inconsistencies in the libretto, but like Mozart he lets them stand because they're beside the point. Like a good stage production, the film doesn't try to wholly redefine the work through some contrivance, but instead gives it a venue in which to shine. I can enjoy the movie without it infecting my imagination of the opera; I will not, God be praised, be imagining tanks and sandbags every time I put on my recording. It adds to my imagination of the piece without subverting it, and that's an achievement in any performance of opera.

Here's hoping it will be available on U.S.-playable DVD soon!


Peculiar said...

And for the Johnnies in our audience (most of this blog's readership), Mr. Sacks was near us in the front row, often singing along.

Juliana said...

I had a hard time NOT singing along with the youtube clip. The only thing that stopped me was it was in English. I did the same thing at Don Giovanni - Lance had to nudge me to stop "enhancing" the performance (it's better than being told to shut your pie hole).

Thank you for posting this! I LOVE the Magic Flute! It was the first opera I ever saw (on TV). I feel the same way about the plot - kind of wonky, but the music transcends it so that you really don't care.

I am surprised Kenneth Branagh didn't cast himself as Papageno -- but I suppose he either can't sing or is preferring to direct...but Stephen Fry is made of awesome too and I will have to look it up over here in the Emerald City.