Despite Opera magazine’s squawky hissy fit, Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of Mozart’s last masterpiece (libretto: Stephen Fry) is no more outrageous than most modern concept stage productions. The characters move between the parallel universes of WWI’s trench-sliced wasteland and the fairytale quest, brave prince with birdman sidekick. Apart from a fascination with the hate-spitting mouth and throat of Lyubov Petrova’s vocally pyrotechnic Queen of the Night, the visual gimmicks are individually tolerable. But they don’t add up to anything particular.
A ravaged landscape, the Three Ladies as nurses, Papgeno’s birds as gas-detecting canaries, the Queen whizzing through the sky like Dracula: Branagh’s intriguing perpetual night-world actually captures the feeling of trial by ordeal before emerging into the sunny uplands of peace and fulfilment. Occasional self-conscious references include the flute thrown into the air and freezing, a visual echo of ‘2001’, and the camera panning back to reveal rows of graves (‘Oh! What a Lovely War’) – the old Branagh too-clever-by-half trick not really amounting to much. The music’s well served by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under James Conlon, with Canadian Joseph Kaiser’s personable if slightly tight-voiced Tamino and American Benjamin Jay Davis’ Papageno (fine when singing, toe-curling when clowning). René Pape is a rusty-voiced Sarastro (not a patch on Ingmar Bergman’s Ulrik Cold). The adequate Pamina is one of those light, white-voiced, very English sopranos unsuited to opera’s full-blooded demands. A recent Cambridge graduate who’s confessed to never having heard of Kiri Te Kanawa, she should stick to Baroque nymphs and shepherds.