Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/James Conlon (PG)
When it came out in 2007 I tried in vain to get to see Kenneth Branagh’s film version of The Magic Flute, so I was thrilled this Christmas to be given the film on DVD. I was intrigued to know what Branagh - who admits to being a total opera novice – made of it.
While it wasn't a disappointment exactly, it turned out to be a deeply flawed adaptation, though Stephen Fry’s jaunty libretto seemed to hit the mark. Leaving aside the difficulty of trying to translate a static artform like opera into something cinematic, Branagh makes the odd decision to shift the opera into a place resembling the World War I trenches. He wants the piece to be about war, while Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were clearly writing about Freemasonry and Enlightenment values. I felt he was straining to make the metaphor work, and the horrors of the trenches seemed an uncomfortable backdrop for an opera that includes pantomime foolery.
That’s not to say the music lacks any power; the cast are almost uniformly excellent. Rene Pape is a commanding Sarastro, while Joseph Kaiser and Amy Carson as the lovers, Tamino and Pamina, acquitted themselves well. Lyubov Petrova gets a memorable entrance atop a tank as the Queen of the Night, and her vocal set-pieces are incredibly visceral (though Branagh almost doesn’t know what to do with the camera during Der Hölle Rache). It was a terrible decision to rely so heavily on computer graphics throughout, which, instead of creating magic, frequently dehumanise the piece. At times I felt like I was playing some sort of opera game on a Wii.
Yet for all my complaints, I was entertained. Unlike Ingmar Bergman in his 1975 film adaptation, Branagh doesn't try to ignore the problems inherent in filming opera; the result may not always have worked, but it was certainly never dull.