My first exposure to Mozart’s delightful singspiel, Die Zauberflöte, was in 1976 when I saw the TV film by Ingmar Bergman. I was young in my Mozart appreciation development, and learned an enormous amount by Bergman’s treatment of the overture. He did it as a 7-minute long segment in which the face of a young girl in the audience was succeeded by other audience faces: old, young, pensive, alert, all attentive. Bergman’s camera did nothing but watch, and I was so enchanted that I took it as a life-lesson: When Dealing With Genius, Just Listen.
Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film, The Magic Flute, takes a different tack, depicting during the Overture the hellish conditions of trench warfare in 1916, including preparations for an attack “over the top,” its awful course, and its dreadful consequences. Tamino’s cries for help were in a desperate effort to escape a release of mustard gas that immediately threatens him.
Both films are simply wonderful, and Branagh’s approach both re-interprets the confounding, audacious, peculiar work and brings to the fore the questions of the responsibility of the artist to interpret (not merely replicate) works of a prior age — as well as the artist’s responsibility for that interpretation.
The film is in English, thanks to the Peter Moores Foundation, and Branagh, with his co-writer Stephen Fry, imposes a more coherent narrative on Schikaneder’s brilliant but confounding text. Sarastro is a source of pacifistic, beneficent goodness in the midst of a terrible war that has gone on too long. Tamino’s trials are intended as a test of the supremacy of goodness and peace; his personal success in the trials will end the war for all the world.
It is not possible, however, to make real narrative sense of the libretto to Magic Flute, written as it was with Masonic rather than pacifistic intentions, riddled through with mystical codes and having only the most tenuous grip on a story. The impulse behind the work is philosophical advocacy of a brand of authoritative Enlightenment. Sarastro’s status in this film — as a kind of Center of Pacifism, overseeing a community of kind artists and nurses devoted to healing and creativity — is necessarily confused at the end by his participation in trench warfare of his own devising, in opposition to the forces of the Queen of the Night. And, perhaps more problematically, in order to set up their narrative points Branagh and Fry jettison a bit of the original dialogue and insert their own, particularly at the opening of Act II.
Interpreting a text in search of contemporary relevance is one thing; changing a text to conform to what one thinks the work ought to mean is of course quite another. The first illustrates what the work might mean to us; the second reveals mainly what the work might mean to Kenneth Branagh. And the results have irked many Wagnerian audiences at Bayreuth and beyond — most recently with a Lohengrin performed by rats and a Tannhäuser performed in an eco-gas production center.
This film is, as one might expect from an artist of Branagh’s calibre, magnificent. Visual imagination of a very high degree is always at work. The Act II scene with the Two Armored Men is simply breathtaking, as is the finale (where the battlefields are instantly covered with fertile grass) and the second aria for the Queen (with her not merely lifting from the ground in malevolent ecstasy but madly flitting about like a crazed , poisonous firefly). The performances are completely charming, as were Bergman’s. One simply can’t resist the Three Boys, Papagena and Papageno when they convert a disused barn to a cozy nest (literally). René Pape once again triumphs as the kindly, aware, generous, wise Sarastro. It is a beautiful performance, in perfectly good English. A trailer is available for viewing here.
I recommend the film without reservation for its musical delight (James Conlon, conducting) and its visual audacity. I recommend it yet again because it prompts critical discourse on one of the pressing issues of Wagnerian production today: the duty (if any) of the interpreter to stick to the content of the original work, and the role (if any) of personal, rather than authorial, narrative.