Mozart in the Trenches - Sometimes Ludicrous, Never Boring
Globe & Mail, 20 March 2009
Hope shines brightest in places where there isn't supposed to be any. Some such thought must have been in Kenneth Branagh's mind when he decided to set his film adaptation of Mozart's opera 'The Magic Flute' in the trenches of the First World War.
Yes, Prince Tamino becomes a steel-hatted Tommy in this version, and so does his clownish sidekick Papageno, whose caged birds test for poison gas and sometimes carry messages. The mystical priest Sarastro is either a benevolent commander or some kind of Red Cross functionary. Pamina, Tamino's love interest, seems to embody hope itself. I figure anyone who gallops alone across No Man's Land on a white horse must be hopeful, if still sane.
I can almost see Branagh going down the list of other things needing conversion. Dragon? A rolling plume of gas. Trial by water? Flooding in the trenches. The Queen of the Night's starry throne? A tank rolling over the dead.
The biggest shift comes in accounting for the point of it all. Mozart and Schikaneder were after a good laugh, a poignant love story and the unity of mankind through Masonic wisdom. Branagh keeps the first two, mutes the Masonry and heads straight for the universal peace that will surely ensue if only these two young lovers can come through their trials together.
Ingmar Bergman's famous 1975 'Flute' was partly a billet-doux to opera houses such as Stockholm's Drottningholm Court Theatre, which he reproduced inside a Swedish film studio. Branagh's film is head over heels with CGI effects, used to generate a style of fantastical realism in which nothing, ultimately, looks real.
The overture is one long tracking shot, in which the camera runs ahead of a messenger racing through the trenches, rears up to reveal a vast network of trenches cut through the land, rises to cloud level to show a horde of biplanes in perfect formation, then dives back down to follow the spotless troops over the top and through the barbed wire. This film often deliberately messes with your sense of scale, as for instance when a whole line of tanks seems to roll out from the Queen of the Night's gaping mouth.
The results are often fascinating (I love the duet of the Armed Men, sung by a chorus of faces animated out of a wall of sandbags), sometimes ludicrous and never boring. Led by the veteran conductor James Conlon, the mostly young cast (including Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser as Tamino, the just-out-of-school soprano Amy Carson as Pamina, the ferocious Lyubov Petrova as the Queen and the majestic bass René Pape as Sarastro) looks great and does very well singing Stephen Fry's awkward English translation, which was key to this film's being made at all. Most of the $27-million budget came from the Peter Moores Foundation, whose namesake is the world's keenest (and richest) advocate for opera in English.
As a filmed entertainment, this Flute is better than most of the live HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, though I had more fun watching the magical Julie Taymor production of 'Flute' that launched those broadcasts two years ago. Now, that's a show that needs a proper theatrical run.