Friday, November 30, 2007

Making a Mess of Mozart

Apparently, this year Kenneth Branagh was not content with making a mess out of both As You Like It and Sleuth. He has now tried his hand with The Magic Flute; and, if the Web site is anything to go by, this may be his biggest disaster of the year. The site itself is an incredibly sloppy piece of work, at least if you enter it from the home page; so I would recommend cutting to the chase and going directly to the page with the trailer. Apparently, the Adobe Flash version is the only one that streams; and I do not recommend waiting for a download. If you cannot view the trailer, you may want to fall back on the text of the review that Tim Robey has provided for the Telegraph:

Plonking Mozart's phantasmagorical opera down in the trenches of the First World War is vintage Branagh - daring but silly.

The Queen of the Night (a scary Lyubov Petrova) makes an arresting entrance on top of a tank, and zips through the night sky during her aria like a witch without a broomstick.

Her enemy Sarastro (the imposing German bass René Pape) runs a field hospital and the Three Ladies wear slutty nurse outfits. This is the good stuff.

The bad stuff has a lot to do with Stephen Fry's English libretto, a series of coy rhyming couplets that pitch camp halfway between WS Gilbert and world's-worst-poet William McGonagall.

Except for the unknown Amy Carson, very sweet and credible as Pamina, Branagh has cast the romantic leads with rising opera stars who sing superbly but fall straight into the old trap of giving stage performances in close-up. Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis) has never been more annoying.

With James Conlon conducting, this Flute is perfectly in tune - so it's a shame Branagh keeps dropping it in the mud.

It is almost impossible for me to enumerate the ways in which this all aggravates, particularly in light of the excellent Flute that we got to enjoy this season in San Francisco. I also have to wonder why Branagh had to bring in Fry, when W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman had already come up with and extremely thoughtful (not to mention singable) English version. As to what the imagery promises, Robey's text is only the tip of the iceberg, if one is to judge by the trailer.

As You Like It has yet to make it to an American movie house. Anyone on this side of the pond who saw it did so by virtue of HBO. These days we no longer have any good way to watch opera on cable except for the occasional efforts by PBS. Having already seen René Pape with the San Francisco Opera, I would certainly enjoy seeing and hearing him again; but this does not strike me as a good way to do it.

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