Thursday, December 06, 2007

THE MAGIC FLUTE is shoe-horned into a clumsy conceit

I have seen three movies by Kenneth Branagh this year - AS YOU LIKE IT, SLEUTH and THE MAGIC FLUTE. In all three, Branagh has taken well-known texts and transported them into radically new environments. In all three I found the new environment to be distracting and forced. The radical new interpretation doesn't seem to stem organically from the source text. It doesn't seem to strike off from a daring new insight to the material. Rather, it's just a big flashy conceit into which everything else must be shoe-horned. All three films fail not for want of new ideas but because of Branagh's inability to truly master his new whizz-bang creation. His productions seem indulgent and chaotic rather than sensitive and thoughtful.

THE MAGIC FLUTE is a wonderful fantastic opera in the literal sense of those words. It's filled with magic, love at first sight and a grown man dressed up as a bird! Behind the whimsical, comic facade lies nothing less important that a battle between Truth and Falsehood. Our hero, Tamino, is rescued from a serpent by three cronies who take him to the Queen of the Night. She begs him to rescue her daughter, Panmina, who has been captured by the wicked Sarastro. Tamino falls in love with Pamina's photograph and goes to rescue her, armed with a Magic Flute. He is abetted by one of the most beloved light characters of opera - Papageno the bird catcher - who comes armed with magic chimes and a desire to find his Papagena. Together they rescue Pamina but discover that the Queen has deceived them about Sarastro's true nature. So begins a philosophic quest and a battle between the Enlightenment (Masonic ritual is hinted at) and Obfuscatory dogmatism.

Branagh chooses to transpose the opera to World War One and to conceive its struggle as one between war and peace. Hmmmm. So we get the warmongering Queen of the Night astride a tank and Sarastro pleading for peace at the most politically correct cemetary outside of a Benneton ad. Any claim to be updating the opera or making it relevant is belied by the highly stylised production design and photography and the misinterpration of the central text. The battle between the Enlightenment and Obscurantism is bang on the nail of contemporary politics. A sentitively updated MAGIC FLUTE would have been a powerful reminder that we should never take the victories won in the Enlightenment for granted in age of fundamentalism. Sadly, THE MAGIC FLUTE dodges the issue as much as THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

So what's left? Papageno should be good for a laugh but I found his gee-whizz Americanisms grating. The cast is pretty thin aside from Rene Pape as Sarastro and Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night. Very few great singers can also act and we haven't found any here. Branagh seems incapable of just shooting a singer singing an aria. Instead we have a relentlessly and conspicuously cart-wheeling camera. A particularly clumsy metaphor is to shoot Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen as an extreme close-up with the Queen spitting out the words as tanks fire in the background.

And, can someone explain to me why having a libretto translated into English (this time by Stephen Fry) makes an opera more accessible? Frankly, most of the time the sopranos are singing you can't make out the words anyway. Far better to have the libretto in German with sur-titles.

THE MAGIC FLUTE played Toronto, Venice and Seville 2006. It was released in France and Belgium in 2006 and in Norway, Spain, Serbia, Israel, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Japan earlier in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Germany on January 3rd and in Argentina on February 21st 2008.

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