In Sight/ Cinema & Arts: 'Magic Flute' Even More Magical on Film

Herald-asahi, 22 June 2007

By Hiroko Oikawa
**Thanks, Jude

Opens July 14
139 minutes
Chanter Cine in Tokyo and elsewhere

British director Kenneth Branagh's film "The Magic Flute" -- based on Mozart's popular opera and performed by songbirds who usually strut their stuff in operas and musicals -- opens with a peaceful scene in a grassland. But you soon notice the land is lined with trenches. Bombs, gunfire and the drone of combat planes interrupt the peace. In that battlefield, three nurses save a young officer named Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) from a poison-gas attack.

With this overture -- which replaces a scene in Mozart's original piece where young prince Tamino is attacked by a serpent -- Branagh transports the opera, written in 1791, to a World War I setting.

The opera is "essentially about conflict and the resolution of conflict eventually through peace and harmony, literally musical harmony," Branagh said at a recent press conference in Tokyo.

For him, Branagh said, the terrible but extraordinary moment in history that was World War I was full of the epic, with adventures, romance and excitement.

"And it's full of conflict. It offers a scale that this music seemed to demand," he added.

Branagh's cinematic opera covers all 22 pieces of music from the original. Its English libretto, provided by British actor and playwright Stephen Fry, adds a taste of language from the 1914-18 era.

Though renowned for directing and starring in acclaimed films based on Shakespeare's "Henry V" and "Hamlet," Branagh says he was a novice in opera.

"For me, opera was a very removed, very exclusive, very expensive art form. My problems were that I usually didn't understand the story and I found that the acting was sometimes very big."

He was asked to make the film by British philanthropist and opera patron Peter Moores.

"He wanted someone from outside the world of opera who would open the doors and do a number of things to let people know that 'The Magic Flute' is a very popular opera," he explained.

Branagh said people who are intimidated by opera can take a risk with this one. "Because of the magic inside it, the romance, the adventure, the passion and the conflict, it can also be here and now today a very powerful film."

As the story unfolds, the three nurses take Tamino to the Queen of the Night (Lyubov Petrova), who asks Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina (Amy Carson). She was abducted by Sarastro (Rene Pape), an enemy of the queen. Seeing a photograph of Pamina, Tamino falls in love with her and heads for Sarastro's fort along with Papageno (Ben Davis), only to find that Sarastro is a man who is actually seeking peace in the world.

Branagh said "a kind of mutual terror" united him and the singers, because they were both new to each other's art form. Both camps had to be "humble."

"For them, so much of their performance, as distinguished from the stage, would be reacting, listening to the other characters. The arias became less arias for an audience and, instead, a conversation between two people. ...

"I had to learn a great deal about the music--the difficulty in singing. They had to be very open to how to be human, real and natural in front of the camera. That meant it was a very modest, very honest experience," he recalled.

Branagh gives credit to librettist Fry for bringing out the laughs and romance in the story.

"He is an opera buff. ... I knew that he would draw the humor from 'The Magic Flute' in the characters of Papageno and Papagena [the girl Papageno marries, played by Silvia Moi]. ... I knew that he would be drawn more to the love story," he explained, adding that Tamino and Pamina appeared together much more in his film than in the opera.

Branagh's cinematic approach gives the opera an extra boost of excitement. The director said he was particularly pleased with the scene where the Queen of the Night sings her second aria while flying across the sky.

"Her madness is expressed in a very vivid cinematic way that wouldn't be possible on the stage."

Other gripping scenes--from Papagena's turning from an old lady to a young girl, to a stack of sandbags singing a chorale, to the trial of fire and water that Tamino and Pamina are put through-- make it easy to sit through the 139-minute-long opera.

The film also stirs up a feeling of solemnity when Sarastro and his people mourn the war victims in front of their names, which have been inscribed in different languages, including English, Japanese and Arabic. Is this a contemporary message?

Branagh said that "The Magic Flute" has invited many interpretations over time because "it continues to reflect some light, some insight of a new nature on fundamental, universal human concerns." It addresses "the triumph of love over hatred, the triumph of light over dark, peace over war. ... It is very heartfelt, very deep."

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