Dir: Kenneth Branagh. UK.2006. 137mins.
Can filmed opera attract a multiplex audience'Probably not, but Kenneth Branagh's sumptuous newversion of The Magic Flute comes asclose to crossover as a meeting of these two great light-and-sound artforms ever will. Any exercise in this hybrid genre hasto deal with the question of how to translate the static staginess of operainto the dynamic human drama that we expect of the big screen. Branagh deals with the problem in a novel way: he takes The Magic Flute out of the theatre and setsit in the trenches of the First World War but makes war itself theatrical,choreographed and brightly lit. The result is a widescreen delight that catchesperfectly the mix of seriousness and frivolity in Mozart's most esoteric work.
The Peter Moores Foundation - set up by the knighted British footballgaming king, music-lover and philanthropist to attract new audiences to artforms like opera, classical music and the fine arts -put up the $27m budget, which would have been almost impossible to raise on the open market. But with the Branaghbrand name attached, this is by no means an uncommercialprospect, despite the fact that the stars are singers rather than actors.
The Magic Flute will play best in territories, from the US through most of Europe toJapan, where an audience already exists for classic Western opera; if (as seemsmore than likely) it crosses over to opera newcomers, then will do so withinthese core countries. Ancillary prospects look promising: the opera DVD marketis a small but lucrative one, and this will place it at the widest end of theniche, with longer shelf life than most features. It premiered out ofcompetition at Venice before heading for Toronto.
German-speakers may bridleat the fact that Emanuel Schikaneder's originalGerman libretto has been translated into English and adapted by Branagh's friend and colleague Stephen Fry. But Fry'senjoyably effervescent version - which includes some not overly intrusive linesof informal spoken dialogue, in place of the 'sung-spoken' recitative passagesof opera - is well-matched to the music, with the oddcomic couplet that reminds one of Gilbert and Sullivan ("I can end the pain I'mfeeling/Just by swinging from the ceiling").
There were no Englishsubtitles when the film screened in Venice, but these should probably be addedwhen distributors in Anglophone territories eventually come on board: thesingers vary in intelligibility, with the female soprano and mezzo-sopranolines being, as always, the most difficult to decipher.
The plot of Mozart's finalopera (written in 1791, a few months before the composer died) is rococo evenby the flexible standards of the genre. Its core is the series of trials that anoble young prince, Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) and thedamsel he loves, Pamina (Amy Carson), must passthrough in order to pass from dark ignorance - represented by Pamina's fierce and jealous mother, The Queen Of The Night(Lyubov Petrova) - to thelight of understanding, which is identified with the wise ruler Sarastro (Rene Pape).
Branagh and Fry place Sarastro andThe Queen Of The Night on opposing sides of the FirstWorld War trench warfare; initially a captain in the Queen's service, Tamino is won over to Sarastro'sside when he enters his castle in order to rescue Pamina,who is being kept prisoner there. Tamino's comicsidekick, Papageno (Ben Davis), is a lily-liveredbird-catcher: in the film version he becomes the soldier who provides and caresfor the canaries that were used in the trenches to detect mustard gas.
Rarely has the phrase"theatre of war" been taken so literally. The Queen Of The Night first appearsbelting her lungs out astride a caterpillar tank, a marching band (completewith violins) is briefly seen playing the music we hear on screen, the threeregal attendants of Mozart's opera become sexy nun-nurses and Sarastro's guards are turned into jerky Nutcracker automatons when Papageno sounds his magic chime of bells.
There are only two mainsets: the labyrinthine trenches, where soldiers run endlessly round likelaboratory rats, and Sarastro's castle, whereproduction designer Tim Harvey picks up the Masonic subplot of the opera andtranslates it into a fantasy space that is half bare Gothic cathedral, halfarcane Da Vinci Code palace.
The film's studio-basedhyper-realism is enhanced by musical-style lighting a la Moulin Rouge and by a whole range of CG effects, at their mostimpressive in the six-minute opening crane shot (an homage to Welles' Touch of Evil')where we pan down from the blazing sun to a flowery meadow that turns out to befurrowed with trenches, before swooping and dipping through the trenches andout again to a field where battle formations are being drawn up.
Little attempt is made toconceal the artificiality of this CG work: at times (especially at the end,when green meadows replace the battle-scared badlands) we feel like we'vestrayed into a Pixar movie. Ingmar Bergman'splayful1975 version of The Magic Fluteis nodded at in one special effect, when a black-and-white photo of Pamina begins to dance: in Bergman's film, it was herpicture in Tamino's locket that came to life.
Branagh disproves the maxim that opera singers can't actwith his inventive casting, which mixes young but already established singerslike Joseph Kaiser with new talents like Amy Carson, whose performance as Tamina is outstanding, challenging the stylised nature ofthe exercise with its emotional depth.
With his budget, Branagh could easily have used opera divas like Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiou, twoleading lights of the opera world who appeared together in Benoit Jacquot's 2001 film version of Tosca. But while the decision to go for expressive range over operastar cachet may annoy a few hard-line opera buffs, it bolsters the film'scinematic impact no end.
Ideale Audience Production
Peter Moores Foundation
English libretto anddialogue