Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Love is stronger than war: Branagh's Magic Flute

Revising history: now with more Mozart
While I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, love Mozart (obviously,) and have a thing for First World War dramas, I wasn't sure what to expect of the confluence of these three in Branagh's 2006 film of The Magic Flute. Frankly, I was a bit dubious as to how the unwieldy drama and sublime music would be adapted to an alternate history of the Western Front; but in the event, I was won over. The film is unapologetically whimsical, even absurd (to an extent I haven't seen Branagh indulge as a director since Dead Again; here its sheer exuberance recalls Buster Keaton routines.) It's also, however, tender and thoughtful; it doesn't confront very seriously or for very long the historical horrors on which it's loosely based, but this is because of its irresistible sincerity of belief in the fact that love does, in fact, conquer all. In Sarastro's vision, there might just be a way to break the cycle of "war to end all wars," and make peace. That this is Sarastro's vision is not at first clear--one of the things I liked most about the production is that it kept me actually guessing as to the characters' motives, and as to what would actually happen to them. Stephen Fry's transladaptation (to borrow a term from Definitely the Opera) of the libretto is sly and sure-handed, eliminating much of the racism and misogyny while cleaving closely to the German vowel sounds, and the musical values are solid. James Conlon leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a lively and nuanced account of the score, sensitive to the emotional journeys of the characters. (There are some cuts, but the only substantial ones to the spoken dialogue.) Joseph Kaiser's Tamino (more likable than most within the first 60 seconds) and René Pape's Sarastro were vocal and dramatic standouts, but the singing was fine all around. I don't mean this as damning with faint praise; on my home speakers, the recording had a tendency to flatten singers' sound, so it was difficult to evaluate the sound they were actually producing. Still, the singing was on the whole musically intelligent, as was (notably and commendably!) the direction. The way the film was shot was itself interesting, with creative camera angles and color palettes, and also related well to the music, I thought (if occasionally succumbing to literalism.) Opera and film being vastly different art forms to begin with, I thought Branagh's gleeful creativity with the latter medium provided a good argument for adapting the former to it. Affection for both Mozart's opera and the possibilities of film animates the endeavor, which I found unexpectedly winsome and touching. The network of theaters screening opera opened the way for its belated U.S. premiere; for showings go here.

The whimsical staging of the overture is reminiscent of Blackadder, with armies like tin soldiers deploying over gently rolling plains, a regimental band that includes a string section, and airplanes that swoop and dive to orchestral cadences. Matters become more serious when Tamino faces near-capture in enemy trenches (it's the "angel of death," not a "giftige Schlange," which pursues him; the serpentine vapors over a stagnant pool and the malicious hissing of a thrown grenade are a nod to those who know the opera already.) In this extremity, the Three Ladies appear as in a mirage, nurses who are improbably buxom and clean and crisp. They were all well sung, but I was uneasy about the objectification of women. Still, it makes some sense if their appearance is considered as Tamino's fantasy. He awakes from his swoon in an alternate reality, with the grenade unexploded, so there's the possibility that all that ensues is a hallucination in the moment before death. ...Which is depressing. But in any case, the fairy tale is touching. Papageno, sung by Benjamin Jay Davis, appears as a Yank (which makes the running joke about him being unable to shut up even funnier) and a keeper of homing pigeons, who needs to be convinced that Tamino isn't suffering from shell shock. Pamina's (magic, floating, animated) portrait takes our hero into an Edwardian ball filmed as sumptuously as an escapist costume drama of interwar Hollywood. I loved this, both as eye candy and as a way of showing Tamino's immersion in an imagined future relationship with Pamina. The Queen arrives in predictably transgressive fashion, descending from a tank to make Tamino squirm with her proximity. Lyubov Petrova's voice struck me as unusually soft-grained and lyric for the Queen of the Night, but she dispatched the coloratura creditably. The quintet vision of universal brotherhood is poignantly accompanied by the Christmas truce, but this is short-lived, much to Papageno's disappointment ("I wish this hero hadn't met me!") I thought having the Three Boys looking as though they'd stepped off a sheet music cover might be setting up the dangers of imagining a national future as male and martial... but it wasn't. The boys' tendency to crop up everywhere was made a comic motif, which worked because of children's passion for observing, for sneaking, and for being where they aren't supposed to be.

Monostatos: "But I thought we had male solidarity!"
Sarastro: "You disgust me."* (*not actual dialogue)
There is no easy way to deal with Monostatos. Branagh's expedient was to make the recurring cast of characters in the chorus multiracial and multicultural, and to make it very clear that Monostatos' crime is attempted rape. It leaves some problems unsolved, of course, but it's better than pretending the problem isn't there. Monostatos does get his aria about being hated and ostracized based on the color of his skin, which is well-sung by Tom Randle and made very poignant in the staging; how much truth there may be in this is left open, although it's made clear (not only in his treatment of Pamina) that he is an unscrupulous and bitter individualist. When Tamino arrives at Sarastro's stronghold, it's a gigantic complex diplomatically influenced by Neuschwanstein and the Greenwich Military Hospital, an asylum with Horace (yes, that Horace) inscribed on the facade. So I was completely on Tamino's side in his righteous wrath against Sarastro... for about thirty seconds. The figure of Sprecher is absorbed in that of Sarastro: René Pape, a compassionate doctor in shirtsleeves who patiently answers the young soldier's inquiries without interrupting his own work. I could barely suppress my delight. When he sends Tamino and Papageno into the enemy command center to begin their ordeals, orderlies point out that he is manipulating and endangering them. This (a shade paler) he admits, before singing about his dreams of peace ("O Isis und Osiris"/"O spirit of our forbears") to a diverse band of civilians and the wounded in an immense cemetery. Pamina is nicely characterized and sung by Amy Carson. The adapted dialogue gives her more opportunities to voice opinions on things (what a notion!) and Carson sang with consistently sweet tone and convincing emotional breadth. "In diesen heil'gen Hallen" thus becomes not only a glorious moment for Pape, but an opportunity for Pamina to be welcomed into full membership in a community of carpenters and stonemasons and smiths, as well as Red Cross tents. "Ach, ich fühl's" and her ensuing madness were well-staged, with (I think) visual allusions to swashbucklers of the '20s and '30s.

"A housewife or a maiden bring Papageno's way
My hope of love is fading with every passing day."
Meanwhile, Tamino and Papageno are developing an unlikely friendship under adverse circumstances. Papageno has fantastical dreams with a music-hall aesthetic (pictured) while Tamino has to cope with modernist nightmares of singing sandbags, but they both sing well and expressively. Joseph Kaiser's intelligently acted (!) Tamino was a special treat. I found the trials gripping enough that I for a moment found their resolution unsatisfactorily implausible... then I remembered that the premise of the opera is a magic flute, and allowed myself to find it heartwarming. Davis was a delight in Papageno's lovesick scene, contributing fine singing as well as humor. He was ably partnered by Silvia Moi as a charming Papagena, dressed like a Gilbert & Sullivan heroine. They live unequivocally happy-ever-after. The denouement of Tamino and Pamina's romance is accompanied by a Stella Dallas moment from the Queen of the Night... but she refuses Sarastro's offer of inclusion, preferring to cling to her resentment. Pape's acting being extraordinary, I became teary, but in a rosy future, everyone seems united and happy, the land healed and the community prospering. Sarastro is still in shirtsleeves, working to keep it so. The moral, in Branagh's words, is that "Love is possible, happiness is possible... and music is not only possible, but necessary." Now that's a philosophy I can get behind. DVD here.


  1. I saw this a *long* time ago, back in 2006, and at the time, didn't know who Rene Pape was (gasp!). I remember it being just as fun and silly and heartwarming as you describe it, and I think I'll have to get my hands on it again.

    1. Gasp! I hope you can; there's a lot to enjoy in it (romance! humor! and did I mention Rene Pape?)

  2. Thanks for this Lucy, I have added it to my Lovefilm rental list!

    Christie, is the Tiny Doom blog no more? couldn't find it yesterday or today. But enjoyed your Verdi review on bachtrack. Good to know you are still in Berlin.

  3. lovely review. recommendable dvd. have it at home.
    branagh should think of doing more opera :)
    great pape inside:)

  4. @villagediva I hope you enjoy! Christie's blog (if I may presume to answer) now has a URL matching its title at tinydooms.blogspot.com

    @Anon Thanks! And I certainly agree on the excellence of Rene Pape.


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