THE MAGIC FLUTE Review: A Strange Jumble of Commercialized Mozart and Dead Poets Society
Directed by Florian Sigl, the new dramatic adaptation for the big screen stars F. Murray Abraham, Iwan Rheon and Jeanne Goursaud.
Without Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann, the canon of filmed opera would make for decidedly dismal viewing.
Apart from that poetic masterpiece and a few sweet-sounding Zeffirellis, there are really only two other films of note in the genre: Ingmar Bergman's 1975 adaptation of The Magic Flute, which, though fleetingly magnificent, could hardly be called a success; and Lewis Klahr's 1996 adaptation of Alban Berg's Lulu, which, though a tour de force, could hardly be called an opera. It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that the latest adaptation of The Magic Flute, directed by Florian Sigl, faithfully continues that sorry tradition.
The film has an intriguing synopsis, if nothing else: Tim Walker, a 17-year-old tenor at the Mozart International School, discovers a secret portal to the world of The Magic Flute. There, he masquerades as Prince Tamino, falls madly in love with Princess Pamina, and, together with his faithful confidant, Papageno, duly suffers Sarastro's trials of silence, fire, and water. Meanwhile, at school, he is mocked by his peers and the principal for singing Andrea Bocelli at an impromptu showcase but finds comfort in his friendship with bullied roommate Paolo and in his overnight romance with Sophie, the principal's daughter.
The failure of the movie is twofold. First, the so-called framing narrative. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Sigl and the producers, Christopher Zwickler and Fabian Wolfart, seem to believe that the best way to share the wonder of The Magic Flute with audiences is by including as little of it as possible in the production. Arias and recitatives have been excised; characters have been pared down (Papageno and Papagena are bird-like insofar as they wear feather garlands); and scene after scene is spent exploring the insipid contretemps between Tim, Sophie, and Paolo.
Only the dramatic highlights of the opera remain—which may sound canny at first, but by the third or fourth excursion into Fluteland, we have been so bombarded by climaxes that they quickly turn into anti-climaxes, as would those of, say, Macbeth, had Shakespeare simply leapt from Inverness to Forres to Dunsinane without all that pesky poetry in between.
Worse, there is absolutely no continuity of rhythm or suspense as we move between worlds: we simply lurch from tranquility to terror, from comedy to tragedy, and vice versa, with no regard for atmosphere or the mechanics of short-term memory. Consequently, all the carefully wrought tensions, slowly burning desires, and spectacular triumphs of Schikaneder's original libretto are disrupted, if not ruined, while introducing several needless complexities, such as Tim/Tamino being in the questionable position of loving two women rather than one.
And this sappy—and sapping—school story becomes yet more dubious when you learn that the "objective" of the production, according to Wolfart, "was to make a film that would appeal to a broader and, above all, younger audience." Surely a film set entirely in the world of The Magic Flute, with more fantastic characters, bolder operatic turns, and sensible dramatic pacing, would inspire more wonder and enthusiasm in younger viewers than this strange jumble of commercialized Mozart and Dead Poets Society.
Second, the music. Sigl, who studied under the great Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, has displayed some attentiveness and respect to Mozart's compositions—period instruments are used where possible; some of the actors are established opera singers; and the soundtrack was recorded by the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, which was founded in 1841 by Mozart's sons and widow.
All that is very admirable, but there are far more fundamental problems with the film that are not solved by the inclusion of an eighteenth-century bassoon. The vocals, for example, are all post-synced, with the actors—even those who could feasibly sing live—merely mouthing along to an oversanitized soundtrack that has none of the force or physicality of live opera, or indeed of the lesser but still tangible physicality of filmed opera. There are times when the synchronization is so off and the singing so inadequate (Larissa Herden, as Lady 1, tries to make Mozart sound like Ariana Grande) that Mozart's fairy-tale Egypt could easily be mistaken for some kind of operatic karaoke bar. Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe! indeed.
Sadly, the principal performances are little better than the screenplay. Jack Wolfe, who here makes his film debut, gives an inexpressive Tim and an uninspired Tamino: as the former, he alternates between a twinkling smile and the look of someone who has just accidentally broken an expensive vase; as the latter, whom he plays in much the same way, he is sorely lacking the strong convictions and spontaneous heroics of a fabled Prince. Disappointing, too, are the operatic talents in the ensemble, who have been either underused, as with Morris Robinson's magisterial Sarastro, or misused altogether, as with French soprano Sabine Devieilhe, who is wonderfully assured and expressive in the Queen's high tessitura but does not command dialogue nearly as thunderously.
Those with simpler roles fare slightly better. Niamh McCormack's irreverent Sophie provides a much-needed counterpoint to Tim's ceaseless simpering. F. Murray Abraham is an august school principal, though his delivery is occasionally as wooden as the baton he flourishes. Iwan Rheon's ebullient Papageno is suitably roguish without being vulgar.
Elliot Courtiour, as Paolo, is a kindly companion to Tim and delivers well one of the film's two jokes. But the best of the minor roles is Stefan Konarske's mangy Monostatos: as he sashays this way and that, fouling every insult and endearment with his purring, sibilating tongue, he is endlessly and splendidly repulsive. A fine bit of casting.
Bergman's adaptation may have been a failure, but it is a failure yet to be surpassed. And there is scant evidence that things are improving: the BBC's 2003 adaptation, co-directed by Sue Judd and David McVicar and featuring an imperial Diana Damrau as the Queen of the Night, was musically brilliant but altogether too stagy; McVicar's second attempt, in 2017, this time starring Sabine Devieilhe as the Queen, was, again, marvelous as opera but poor as film; and Kenneth Branagh's inventively disastrous effort in 2006, in which he thought it a good idea to have the fearsome Queen ride a tank, was an affront not only to Mozart but to art itself.
It would seem a small miracle, then, that Bergman was able to even intimate in film what Mozart and Schikaneder achieved in music. But miracles do happen—and Florian Sigl has performed yet another: he has taken the magic out of The Magic Flute.
The film opens in movie theaters Friday, March 10, 2023, via Shout! Studios. Visit the official site for more information.