Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/James Conlon

UK release Date: 30 November 2007 2 stars

Kenneth Branagh's The Matgic Flute: movie review

I am all in favour of the idea of making films of operas. So many of them seem to invite cinematic treatment, since they frequently contain stage directions which are impossible to realise in sufficiently convincing ways in the theatre.

This has led to a tendency to disregard them completely amongst opera directors in recent decades, as the rise of television and cinema has reduced the tolerance of the average audience member for theatrical gesture and affect. But a film version of Wagner's Ring Cycle, for instance, could give us Valkyries really flying through the air, and the river Rhine could actually burst its banks. We could have an Act I of Rusalka which actually looks like it is under water, as opposed to the aquatic nature of the setting being hinted at with a few lights.

The Magic Flute has its fair share of fantastical goings on which include it in this category, and so this is partly why I was very excited at the prospect of a film version. For example, I have never seen the trials of fire and water staged in a way that did not make excessive demands on my own imagination, or require a great deal of indulgence of the opera house's technical team. I was also hopeful that this film might go some way to raising the profile of opera and help break down the myth that it is the exclusive preserve of the privileged cognoscenti, and possibly even lead to films being made of other pieces. Unfortunately, both the approach taken by the director, Kenneth Branagh, and the way in which his vision has been realised, has led to such uneven results that this film has failed to do any service to Mozart, the opera, the art-form or the cinema-going public.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the whole enterprise is the casting. From a vocal point of view, it really runs the gamut from the best available, via the mediocre, to the woefully inadequate. Rene Pape's Sarastro is arguably the very greatest you could hope to see and hear in the opera house today, and his singing sets him head and shoulders above his colleagues. The majority of the rest of the singing is perfectly respectable, and is undertaken by mostly young men and women forging reasonable or good careers for themselves around Europe. And then there is Amy Carson as Pamina. My attempts at finding a biography of this lady from the film's website, which is possibly the world's most infuriating, have met with frustration. I can tell you that she graduated from Trinity College Cambridge in 2005, and that her favourite breakfast cereal is Nestle Chocopick with ice-cold full-fat milk. Any significant details of her musical provenance are not forthcoming. Suffice to say that, from a vocal point of view, she is so wide of the mark of what would be acceptable in an opera house, or on an audio recording of the piece, that I cannot imagine why she was cast. In a film, other qualities take on more importance than they might have in the theatre. Compromises have to be made and balances have to be struck. But Carson's acting is merely sufficient, not distinguished, and her looks, though lovely, are not unsurpassable. The casting of Joseph Kaiser as Tamino is near-perfect, since although he is not the finest tenor around with Tamino in his repertoire, he sings it well, acts well, and has the requisite aspect of a romantic hero, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Ben Affleck. Kate Royal would have been his perfect counterpart, as would Malin Christensson, and there is probably a significant quotient of students in the final years of their postgraduates at the London conservatoires who would have been preferable to Carson.

I found the decision to set the action during the First World War a little disappointing. I am no purist, but given that the story is so hard to stage faithfully in the theatre, its feels rather as if for once, there was the opportunity to realise Schickaneder's colourful, crazy ideas to their fullest extent, but it was shunned. The war setting was alternately bizarre and successful. The overture to the opera, played brilliantly by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under James Conlon, accompanied footage of bombs going off. This lent them an incongruous elegance more associated with fireworks and Handel than grim reality, death and destruction. However, Tamino's opening scene, in which he is fleeing the serpent in the original, was thoroughly gripping, as he desperately and vainly sought refuge from the ravages of war, with real fear in his eyes as he lay tormented in a filthy pit of water in the trenches. The war setting was also used to delineate more clearly the relationship between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night. Tamino became something of a pawn for Sarastro, who used him to bring about a turning point in the war between the two sides. This served Sarastro's character very well, giving him far more motivation for his actions and decisions, which can seem a little muddy and incoherent in the opera. It also made the sudden about turn in the middle of the plot, where the evil monster suddenly turns out to be the goody and vice-versa, seem less jarring. On the other hand, the specificity of the setting and the updating made the fanciful elements in the story jar far more than usual. If the Queen of the Night should take flight during her second aria in the anything goes context of the original, it works. For her to do so when she is supposed to be the leader of a side engaged in trench-based warfare is ridiculous. Amongst all the bombing, rain and mud, Papageno's bizarre hallucinations about bird-women, shot with vivid colour in a style reminiscent of Pierre et Gilles photography, failed to integrate, or provide relief. Rather, they seemed as if they were from an entirely different conception of the piece, and embarrassed slightly.

The change of setting to World War I was only possible by making changes to the text. All references to Isis and Osiris, for instance, were completely expunged, since ancient Egyptian deities could not be made to fit. The identification of Sarastro with the light and the sun was also eliminated, robbing the opera, a paragon of enlightenment thought, of a key part of its identity. The majority of the misogyny was also stamped out, presumably so as not to cause the audience discomfort or make Sarastro seem unsympathetic.

Given all of these liberties, it surprises me that the racism was left in. Monostatos railed against the world, putting his lack of success with the ladies down to the colour of his skin, just as he does in the original. This was strangely illogical, given the ethnic diversity of the members of Sarastro's court in the film, and the multiculturalism of the war graves we saw, which was so marked as to suggest a Europe of today, not the First World War. Such an apparent anomaly may have had an agenda behind it on the part of the director, but if so, it was not sharply enough drawn. However, If the society in which Monostatos exists is not racist, it is difficult to see why else he has become so bitter and twisted, particularly with Tom Randle in the role. In this film, he is far too attractive, and his abdominal muscles far too sculpted, to be the object of revulsion he is supposed to be.

As will be clear from the foregoing, the libretto of Stephen Fry is a free adaptation of the original. The English, on the whole, is pleasingly modern, with enough colloquialism to work without dragging things down. Fry's lack of experience in dealing with singers does show, unfortunately. One of the worst examples comes at the end of Tamino's aria in response to the picture of Pamina. He has to sing 'and melt into a perfect peace' where the German has 'und ewig wäre sie dann mein'. This trades a nice open 'ah' vowel for an 'ee' vowel on the ardent top Gs that close this number, and although Kaiser handles it well, the impact of the music is inevitably detracted from. The spoken dialogue of the original was dramatically reduced, with often whole paragraphs and exchanges being replaced with single sentences. This was, on the whole, quite pleasing. Once the religious and enlightenment elements of the story had been removed, there was, in truth, little left to talk about.

It is impossible for me to say how an audience member who has no familiarity with the opera would have reacted to this film, given my lengthy involvement with the piece in various capacities. However, I suspect they might have been completely flummoxed by the combination of fairy-tale and early twentieth century war. I do not believe the juxtaposition was a success, and it will only serve to emphasise the idea that opera is incoherent in the minds of people new to the art form. Add to this the mostly undistinguished, and in some cases down right bad, singing, and the result is an ill-conceived jumble that falls short of everything one hoped it would be. The only aspect of the venture which is consistently pleasing, vivid and inspired is the excellent playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the direction of their conductor, James Conlon.

By John Woods