Kenneth Branagh : un rve d'harmonie (A Dream of Harmony)

Le Figaro, 13 December 2006
By Marie-Noelle Tranchant
(Translated by Renata)

Q.  This was a commission from the Peter Moore Foundation which wanted to take opera out of the opera house. Did this suit you?

The Magic Flute was conceived this way, for a popular theatre audience. The challenge appealed to me. And the project arrived like a surprise present. I said I needed to listen, listen, listen, and they were patient. It's a real luxury to work that way.

Q.  How did you come up with the idea of setting the story during the 1914-1918 war?

It was a sudden inspiration. It came to me while I was thinking about how to tell the story in such a way that the audience would be gripped by real suspense. I have always been passionately interested in the First World War. And I am particularly fascinated by the moment that preceeded it, the atmosphere on the eve of the taking up of arms. I remember a book, Bird Song, written by one of those poet soldiers who were in the Great War. The sense of the beauty of the world and its imminent destruction is an infinitely poignant vision for me. I wanted to recapture that in the overture: nature, calm and splendid, and then the deflagration. With the presence of the four elements: air, earth, water, fire, which were very important to Mozart. And I wanted Tamino to have something of those soldier poets, at once sensitive and courageous. That seemed to me to correspond to the spirit of 'The Magic Flute', written by Mozart when he knew he was ill. A sort of meditation on life and death, serious beneath its light and sparkling surface, carried forward by a profound desire for peace, or in musical terms, harmony.

Q.  Are you an opera lover? What is your relationship to music? I discovered opera late, but friends had told me that it was an art for me. My relationship to music is both informal and demanding: when I listen, I listen. During my childhood in Ireland, in a large working-class family, music was above all the pleasure of singing together. I had lots of uncles and aunts who interpreted their songs like comedies or very lively dramas. As an adolescent, I played a bit of guitar and piano, as an amateur. But mainly, listening to music for me is a sort of meditative exercise, almost therapeutic. I reach the same state of mind when I am cooking. I realy like baking my bread.

Q.  The translation into English and the transposition of the time period to the Great War required a considerable reworking of the libretto. What are the main changes?

Mainly it's a richer development of the story of the couple, Tamino and Pamina. We need to believe in their love in first sight, and in their continuing love while they are separated. We see them on screen more often than we would on stage, and we flirted with cinematographic themes of love at first sight, dance, glamour. Pamina becomes a romantic vamp. But the most important change consisted in erasing the masonic context of 'The Magic Flute'. In the film it becomes a sort of pacifist movement, much less specific.

Q.  What motivated this choice?

I wanted to express a sense of fraternity, an aspiration to peace and a form of compassion for humanity of the sort that would be manifested by a Gandhi, as well as by a Luther King or Mandela. A very positive zeal, clearly opposed to the intense darkeness of the negative emotions which occur in the second aria of the Queen of the Night, with its explosion of hatred. But I did not want this love of peace and fraternity to appear to be related to a clan, a sect, an esoteric cult. For me, that would limit the universal value of it. 'The Magic Flute' is a voyage of illumination, which goes from the loss of innocence to the acquisition of knowledge. But this quintessential human experence should available to all and not reserved for a few initiates. Love and knowledge cannot depend on membership in a secret club. Otherwise, it becomes macabre like the Da Vinci Code. Q.  You are not afraid of annoying the purists?

I think that it is very healthy to produce versions of the great classical masterpieces which lend themselves to controversy. That keeps them alive.

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