Quite some time ago I visited a screening of Kenneth Branagh‘s movie version of The Magic Flute. The visuals of the movie were great and the music as always great fun. Unfortunately there was trouble with the projection and so the aspect ratio was slightly screwed. But those are the delights of independent movie houses. Although the movie was made in 2006 it has been quite as hassle to see it in Germany. It toured for almost two years through different festivals until it received a limited release in Germany. So the troubles with the aspect ratio didn’t bother me that much, since it was great to finally see the movie.
Unfortunately I was not all that taken by this interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The movie starts great. Kenneth Branagh and his coauthor Stephen Fry set the action in a fantasy world, highly reminiscent of Europe at the time of the first world war. A meadow Wordsworth used to dream of is pierced by a network of trenches belonging to two opposing armies. Those armies attack each other to the soaring tunes of Mozart’s overture. At the end of this battle Tamino finds himself disoriented on the devastated battlefield. From here on The Magic Flute takes its course.
Kenneth Branagh accompanies the opera with dazzling visuals. He chooses a visual style that keeps reminding that the action is taking place in a heightened reality. This is a logical continuation of Branagh’s visual work on Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the images were modeled on the pictures of the French artist Fragonard, and As You Like It where Branagh invoked the forrest of Arden with the same approach. Now, in the realm of opera Branagh pulls all the stops. And it works beautifully. “The Magic Flute”? shows Mozart’™s “Die Zauberflöte”? in the highly personal images of Kenneth Branagh.
The novelist, actor, director, show master, blogger, twitterer, podcaster and wearer of many other hats Stephen Fry wrote the english libretto for “The Magic Flute”?, and unfortunately here the troubles of the film start. Unfortunately because I greatly admire Fry’s work, especially his movie Bright Young Things, which to me is one of the great movies set in the early 20th century. Fry’s libretto reminds in word choice and mannerisms of the great operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. At times it feels like one is watching a “Gilbert and Sullivan Go to War” matinee. While this works for the Papageno scenes it seems quite out of place in the Sarastro scenes. To me in those scenes the movie looses track and its makers consciously seem to choose to ignore the nature of their source material.
Sarastro, in the original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, is a high priest. He forces Tamino to undergo three trials to be accepted in Sarastro’s pseudo-egyptian-free-mason-style cult. Those trials are important because they show Tamino’s spiritual development. He moves away from a worldly frame of mind, as represented by the Queen of the Night towards an enlightened state of spirituality, as represented by Sarastro. Branagh and Fry completely secularize Sarastro. Instead of a high priest, he is a healer and head of an army. His scenes do not take place in a temple of wisdom, but in a Walt Disney version of Cinderella’s castle. Sarastro’s high priests are army officers and the important aria “Marsch der Priester, O Isis und Osiris”? changes completely in character. Instead of invoking the spirit of these ancient egyptian gods in his temple of wisdom, Sarastro stands in a cemetery in front of a multicultural wall of death and sings about the wisdom of his forefathers.
The admittedly highly convoluted and ambiguous spirituality of Mozart’s opera is completely ignored and substituted by a cheap and easy brand of internationalism. Branagh and Fry try to take the easy way out. Instead of confronting the more difficult and possibly controversial side of their material they settle for a candy-store version of Schikaneder’s libretto. This is especially unfortunate because the complete second half of the opera hinges on those spiritual questions. Tamino’s trials loose every meaning if they are not understood as part of a spiritual test of his character. The way Branagh and Fry choose to play it in their version makes those tests part of an ultimately unconvincing quest for a ceasefire between the armies. If you play it like that Tamino’s toils make little to no sense. While “Die Zauberflöte”? remains highly ambiguous on who is right and who is wrong, on who is good and who is evil, “The Magic Flute”? leaves not doubt: The Queen of the Night is an evil warmonger while the healer Sarastro is a good and caring pacifist, who is forced to fight a war against his will.
While I liked the audacity of the undertaking, bringing Mozart’s opera in Branagh’s dazzling visuals on the screen, in “The Magic Flute”? I missed those elements that in my eyes make “Die Zauberflöte”? such a great work of art. Now it is definitely time to check out Ingmar Bergman’s production of “Die Zauberflöte”? of 1974. Let’s see how he deals in his Trollföjten with the same material.