Long Delayed, Kenneth Branagh's 'The Magic Flute' Arrives in the US

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Directors have taken many paths to produce The Magic Flute. Mozart's 1791 opera has been set on the moon with astronauts, in a Wild West saloon with cowboys, and in a hippie commune during the 1960s. When Irish-born actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh adopted the opera for film in 2006, he gave it another unlikely setting: the trenches of World War I.

In Branagh's version, the Queen of the Night, Mozart's villain, arrives atop a tank. Sarastro, the humane conscience of the story, shelters refugees in a field hospital. Birdman Papageno has his pigeons test for mustard gas in the trenches. The long overture is a CGI-enhanced tracking shot of a scarred battlefield.

Branagh believed that the setting would bring out the epic themes of light and darkness, superstition and reason contained in Mozart’s score and Emanuel Schickaneder's libretto. "I found myself caught with the idea that the poignant and profound conflict of the First World War – with its massive numbers and its extraordinary impact on human life and landscape – might be a terrific crucible for all the elements for this mythic story,” Branagh said in an interview with Jeff Spurgeon (listen to the full conversation above).

“The First World War itself started out as a blaze of patriotism and hope and optimism and [yet] that turned from fairy tale into nightmare swiftly," added Branagh, whose elaborate speech patterns match his background as a Shakespearean actor.

The director jokes that the film’s path to distribution has been equally epic. Although it had limited runs in Europe and in Canada, it has appeared in the U.S. only by way of bootlegs and illicit YouTube videos. But a production company called Emerging Pictures, which focuses on performing arts cinema, took up its cause. This Sunday, it will present screenings in New York and in art house theaters around the country. A DVD and iTunes release is scheduled for Tuesday.

Soprano Amy Carson as Pamina

The film features a new English language libretto by British actor Stephen Fry along with a cast of mainly young singers including tenor Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), bass Rene Pape (Sarastro), soprano Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), soprano Amy Carson (Pamina) and baritone Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno).

Branagh said that casting was a two-year process with the conductor James Conlon, who leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the film. The producers wanted to find singers who could deliver the vocal goods but also look natural in close-ups. “It took a long time to find a style that could allow for reality and yet meet the demands of the singing,” said Branagh. For preparation, the director had the singers view other opera films, rehearse in front of a mirror and practice improvising scenes on the set.

"The Magic Flute" film started at the behest of Sir Peter Moores, an English philanthropist whose life-long mission has been to promote opera around the world by translating it into English. Seeking to mark Mozart's 350th anniversary year in 2006 he found that Branagh's experience with Shakespeare made him ideally suited for popularizing opera. Moores supplied $27 million in funding and then largely stayed out of the picture.

Although World War I suggests a grim backdrop to this magical tale, Branagh wanted to include some whimsical touches: Tamino is menaced not by a dragon but a rolling plume of gas; a rooster accompanies the Papageno/Papagena duet.

Reviews of “The Magic Flute” have been generally positive if not always ecstatic. The Guardian called it “a genial and good natured production” that “manages to be high-minded and yet accessible.” The Times of London quipped, “this flute blows all right, but it's short on the magic." But North American critics have been more favorable, particularly at its 2009 Toronto screenings.

Would Branagh consider directing an actual opera production someday? "I found myself in a beautifully uncomfortable comfort zone with my friends from opera,” said Branagh of the filmmaking experience. But, he added, “I don’t think I felt comfortable enough to go all the way into the opera house – yet.”

Bass Rene Pape and bass-baritone Rodney Clark in 'The Magic Flute'