For those with no knowledge of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final singspiel, the poster and cast list of Florian Sigl’s new film version of “The Magic Flute” (produced by Roland Emmerich—of “Independence Day” fame and “Moonfall” infamy) might raise some questions. For those familiar with the (incomprehensible) plot of “The Magic Flute,” featuring bird men (and women), casual misogyny, casual racism, two suicide attempts, and Freemasons—all held together by Mozart’s virtuosic music and often presented around the holidays as a family matinee—it raises even more.
First, the cast for the movie, released today, November 17, consists largely of non-opera singers with no dubbing credits listed. Second, actor Jack Wolfe—billed as the character “Tim Walker,” but clutching the flute Tamino is gifted as he begins his quest—wears a school crest on his blazer, as if he fell from Hogwarts into the Queen of the Night’s domain. Third and most unorthodox, the cast list sprawls beyond Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder’s own to include characters like Dr. Longbow (F. Murray Abraham in a mustache) and the father-son pairing of Enrico and Anton Milanesi (Rolando Villazón, one of three opera singers in the cast, and Amir Wilson). Sigl has leveled the playing field: Not even smug opera fans such as myself have the upper hand when preparing for the curtain to go up and the lights to dim.
As an opera, “The Magic Flute” requires a leap of faith and heavy suspension of reality to work. But it does work. Onstage, it finds wonder in the unknown, letting the audience discover Sarastro’s wisdom through Mozart’s inspired music at the same time as himbo prince Tamino. In the context of two previous feature film adaptations of the work—Ingmar Bergman’s illustrious, irreplaceable 1975 magic box set in a replica Baroque theater, and Kenneth Branagh’s desperate-to-be-illustrious 2006 World War I fantasy—Sigl’s version is “Flute”‘s rogue YA cousin: “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” reflected through mid-2000s fanfiction.
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We’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither is Tim Walker after he flies through a portal in the library of The Mozart All Boys Boarding School—a school high in the Austrian Alps for musically gifted youngsters like himself (affiliated neither with the Mozarteum nor Julie Andrews’ Nonnberg Abbey)—and straight into the world of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” where he’s immediately addressed as “Prince Tamino.” Tim is a late admission to the School and faces the dual stressors of proving himself among a rowdy, competitive cohort and flirting with the one girl mysteriously living on the premises, while also being the single student crossing dimensions. As luck would have it, the school is putting on “The Magic Flute” as their yearly showcase. By night, Tim journeys through Mozart’s deserts and temples and by day he returns to the Dark Academia moodboard (more on this later) of studies, auditions, rehearsals, and clandestine piano jam sessions with his sweetheart. You thought Harry Potter had it rough defeating an arch-enemy in the form of a serpent while learning magic at an exclusive boarding school and dealing with puberty? Trying adding opera to the mix.
Of course, Tim picks up the similarities between his alternate reality and the well-known opera, using his prior knowledge of Sarastro’s challenges to game the system. The story diverges wildly from Mozart and Schikaneder’s as it swings between worlds, and even in the operatic realm there are surprises as a result of Tim’s hacks (many welcome from a 21st-century lens). The overwhelming feeling is of the glee and cringe that comes with a self-insert fanfiction, notably of the kind that exploded in popularity around the Harry Potter franchise. It is blissfully earnest and bursting with youthful imagination and wish fulfillment. In its focus on über-talented, presumably wealthy high school protagonists and the face-value delivery of heavily CGI’d YA fantasy, Sigl’s “Magic Flute” feels more of a piece from 2006—the year of “Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker”—than Branagh’s World War I reworking—which was actually released in 2006—does. Then again, with the Y2K resurgence in progress and the full embrace of silly and sincere following lockdown, Sigl’s may truly be the “Magic Flute” for our time.
Branagh’s version is word-faithful to Schikaneder (by way of Stephen Fry’s translation), but the English actor-director adds little new, to the point that his work feels like imitation rather than creation. The camera finds brief wonder in the flowers growing beside trenches and Sarastro’s noble mission in a field hospital. When the story calls for the otherworldly and fantastic, however, Branagh’s pedestrian rationality feels limited and artificial. His visual literalism finds its apotheosis in rendering the serpent as mustard gas. He cannot find room for the nonsensical and sublime that Mozart calls for.
Bergman’s “Magic Flute”—one of the finest opera films made by one of cinema’s finest minds—takes the stage as his starting point, focusing on the audience’s emotional journey as Mozart’s overture is played before them. As his film and Mozart’s opera progress, the walls of the stage occasionally come down—Pamina’s suicide attempt takes place in a snowy forest (Sigl’s film cuts both suicide attempts, perhaps not wanting to stray into “13 Reasons Why” territory)—but these walls are spaces for opportunity, not restriction. Bergman regularly returns to a close-up on one of these faces in the audience throughout the performance unfolding before her.
“The Magic Flute” was extremely personal to Bergman; in his retelling, he revels in theater’s power of communal transformation. When the curtain comes down for intermission, the cast mill about and find moments of quiet—in “Parsifal,” in comic books—before preparing their sacred ritual again. It’s the opposite of Tamino as self-insert. Sigl replaces Bergman’s meticulous detail and love of faces, hands, and storybooks in close-up, golden touches to accompany golden music, with Tim’s wide and wide-eyed perspective.
All three directors aimed very young with their central cast. Bergman famously wrote that a young cast was “absolutely essential” to capture the “dizzy, emotional shifts between joy and sorrow, between thinking and feeling.” He chose a handsome Tamino and beautiful Pamina. Branagh chose similarly, picking Amy Carson, fresh from training with no professional credits, as his Pamina. These classic cinema aesthetics—youth and beauty (and the baggage that comes with it)—remain the center of an opera industry storm, with stories of fat-shaming at the Metropolitan Opera and other world-leading houses coming to the fore in recent years. Sigl’s choice to make his leads literal high schoolers takes the youthful impetuousness one step further.
Mozart’s melodies for “The Magic Flute” are catchy and singable, even by younger voices when cut and/or transposed. In Sigl’s version, opera singers take the showcase “adult roles”: Sabine Devieilhe’s Queen of the Night and Morris Robinson’s Sarastro steal the show. Iwan Rheon’s exceptionally charismatic Papageno stands out from the crowd despite his role’s truncation; transposing the role to his higher range helps. Asha Banks could have benefited from a mezzo transposition with Pamina’s relentlessly high tessitura. With mics and mixing, there’s room in opera-on-film to incorporate voice styles not possible in a large house with a live orchestra. However, mixing both classical and pop sounds never allows the film to settle into one mode or another, and leads to what may be the biggest tonal missed opportunity of this “Magic Flute”: These kids aren’t nerds.
When Tim arrives at the Mozart School, he auditions for “The Magic Flute” showcase with “Con te partiro.” Upon being dressed down for lack of individuality (and, rightly, opera hands), he explains his choice with, “It’s a classic.” “Con te partiro” was written for Andrea Bocelli and first performed in 1995, the same year star Jack Wolfe was born. I am older than “Con te partiro.” To Tim Walker, I might be as ancient and powerful as the Queen of the Night.
While I can acknowledge the earworm merits of Bocelli’s calling card now, it’s something I never would have listened to half a lifetime ago as a teenager spending summers at classical music programs. Among us nerds, Grieg, Britten, Tchaikovsky, and of course Mozart reigned supreme. By not committing to the obtuse and pretentious when launching our hero’s adventures from an obtuse and pretentious private school, Sigl fumbles a pitch-perfect Dark Academia angle. Had Tim the newcomer and Anton the legacy student argued insufferably over tempo and timbre, the resulting Tumblr moodboards would be extraordinary. I can’t think of a better homage to Mozart. ¶
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