My Magic Flute is Unfaithful Because It Doesn't Want to Betray Mozart
Not much freemasonry, English instead of German, trenches from the First World War instead of old Egypt. Kenneth Branagh took a lot of liberties in bringing the genius from Salzburg to the screen, but he says this was in order to respect the popular and pacifist intent of the opera.
Il Venerdì di Repubblica, 22 June 2009
This image perfectly represents the great challenge for the Irish director: "I wanted to open the theatre doors and reach the general public, turning a classical opera into an approachable and sumptuous show."
The idea of popularisation, faithful to Mozart's original intention (he wanted the libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder to be in German and not in Italian, precisely to create a popular opera), had already worked successfully for Ingmar Bergman, who created a memorable Swedish TV movie, "Trollflöjten", in 1974. Branagh says: I've seen it and admire it a lot. Fortunately, we have different readings: his was more intimate, almost psychoanalytical; mine,on the other hand, is more choral and political. What we have in common is the desire to emphasize the joyfulness of this opera."
Costing 27 million dollars and largely financed by Sir Peter Moores, an English aristocratic whose passion is to promote opera in his country, "The Magic Flute" features music performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, directed by James Conlon, recorded in the London Abbey Road studios.
From the beginning, Branagh was the appointed director, thanks to his remarkable capability with Shakespeare adaptations ("Much Ado About Nothing", "Love's Labours Lost", "Hamlet", "Henry V").
The director admits to not having been keen on opera: "I was an enthusiastic newcomer and I watched DVDs of all the previous performances of "The Magic Flute", listening to the music carefully. Mozart became an obsession for me."
As he had previously done with the Bard, Kenneth Branagh revisited the most richly symbolic work in opera history and revolutionized the original setting. And so, "Die Zauberflöte", presented for the first time in September 1791 (about two months before the composer’s death), is no longer set in an imaginary ancient Egypt, but in a Europe ripped apart by the First World War, underlining the pacifist intent of the opera. “My first movie, "Henry V" , ended with a strong pacifist message. This time the sublime music of Mozart seemed to me an epic scream for peace which could be expressed perfectly, in all its complexity and profound drama, against the backdrop of the First World War. That conflict was a slaughter, with millions of people killed, but it was also a decisive moment in human history: the structure of nations changed; art and science were revolutionised. In this context, the fact that music could be a way to reconciliation among different populations seems a marvellous message to me”.
In the light of this revisitation, Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) becomes a trench soldier who falls in love with the photo (animated in Harry Potter style) of Pamina (Amy Carson), the Queen of the Night’s daughter who has been kidnapped by Sarastro (René Pape), a pacifist leader who protects refugees and the injured in a sort of French castle.
The other characters, played by young opera stars able to sing in English, chosen after 750 auditions worldwide, are also transformed: the Queen’s ladies become three nurses who care for Tamino at the front, the birdman Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davies) becomes a trainer for the canaries used to search for lethal gas in the trenches.
“I know that some Mozart fans will turn up their noses at these changes, but this film is not designed for them, I'm trying to tell the story as if it were new, for a new audience and I’m sure that Mozart would not feel betrayed”, says Branagh, who has diluted the strong freemasonry symbolism of the opera, with the risk that the "trials" that the lovers Tamino and Pamina undergo in Sarastro’s castle may seem meaningless to the audience.
“Mozart was an enlightened man who believed that in the struggle between Good and Evil, the light of peace could defeat the shadows of war, thanks to the power of music and love”, Branagh explains. Thus, in the moving final scene (created with the ample help of computer graphics), the black fields of war disappear in a sea of green pastures, in a world of love and peace regained.
Gratified by hugely a successful opening at the Venice Film Festival, Branagh is resting after three years of work, while waiting for the arrival of the film in U.S. cinemas.
As he prepares to return to acting, working with Tom Cruise in Bryan Singer’s film Valkyrie, he’s looking for a new project, maybe another classical work. “They have an incredible complexity and richness, but that doesn`t mean that the contemporary does not interest me. I love the challenge of the classics because they are stories that deal with universal themes, while I find that often contemporary books deal with less interesting arguments. Today the real challenge, the chance to create a modern epic, would be to write a lyrical work about the Iraq conflict”.