The problem is not that Branagh updated the action to World War I. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand some of the particular challenges that opera poses.
Why do so many film and theater directors have such trouble with opera? Every couple of decades, the opera world goes through a spasm of hiring stage directors to create opera productions, announcing that this will revitalize the field. This has worked in a few cases — the opera director Frank Corsaro began in theater, and Lucchino Visconti, Giorgio Strehler, Franco Zeffirelli, Volker Schlöndorff and John Dexter are among those who proved to have a knack for opera.
But, particularly in recent years, the practice has yielded a number of duds. Yet too few people seem to draw the correct conclusion that some specialized knowledge is useful if you want to make an opera work on screen. Branagh’s “Magic Flute” spells out some of the issues in terms any moviegoer can understand.
Take updating — that is, moving the action of an opera or play to a different period from the one the composer or librettist or playwright intended. Updating is the source of considerable misunderstanding among the opera-going public. Recently, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, after a single performance, pulled a version of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” set in the Nazi death camps. But when done thoughtfully, updating can shed new light on an opera. The director of that “Tannhäuser,” Burkhard Kosminski, said that his point was to find a more contemporary way to convey the source of Tannhäuser’s shame.
Similarly, Peter Sellars’s 1980s production of “Don Giovanni,” which was set in Harlem, was flawed in many ways, but I still remember the poignancy of “Batti, batti,” the aria in which Zerlina flirtatiously invites her husband to punish her, when Zerlina is not a peasant maid but a battered girlfriend.
But for updating to work, the concept has to actually dovetail with what’s already in the libretto and music. One hallmark of a successful updating is the “aha” moment when the connections are revealed. Branagh not only doesn’t deliver any of these, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea that he could. He wants to have it both ways: the creative approach of updating on the one hand, and scrupulous fidelity to the opera on the other.
So “The Magic Flute” opens with an extended, realistic battleground scene, which has a grim patness: This horror has become a well-worn legend of our time. Then Tamino (Joseph Kaiser) begins to sing, and we’re suddenly in a different world. The World War I theme remains, but the stark reality of the opening has been whisked away. Is this wish fulfillment? Has Tamino been hit on the head. Is he fantasizing? Confronted with the Three Ladies as Red Cross nurse figures, the birdcatcher Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis) as a guardian of carrier pigeons, and Sarastro (Rene Pape) as the head of some kind of unspecified brotherhood whose efforts go from relief and reconstruction to one of the fighting armies, you’re left wondering what level of reality you’re supposed to have entered. The state of uncertainty persists for the entire film, as you wait in vain for the director to tie the pieces together.
I think Branagh was aiming for a dialogue between the reality of film and the artifice of opera. This is something other directors have certainly attempted, most notably Ingmar Bergman in his witty 1975 film of “The Magic Flute” (originally made for television), which showed the backstage mechanics of a stage production while sometimes shifting the action into a more cinematic, less theatrical “reality.”
But for the dialogue to work, the elements have to be speaking the same language. Instead, Branagh, deliberately or unwittingly, presents the opera as a safe haven, but also a trivial dream against the cold reality of the war. It doesn’t help that the whole thing is saddled with an often fatuous and awkward-to-sing libretto/screenplay by Stephen Fry, although the music is in good hands with the conductor James Conlon.
The movie culminates in a happy ending that we know to be false. In real life, there was no release or resolution, and if the battlefields again grew grass over the years, it was not because peace or redemption reigned.
Branagh also suffers from unfortunate timing. Bergman’s “Flute” preceded the first “Live From Lincoln Center” telecast by a couple of years. It was, in short, innocent of the peek-behind-the-curtains approach that has now become a centerpiece of operatic broadcast convention. That convention has only solidified with the advent of the Metropolitan Opera’s live high-definition broadcasts, followed by sundry other opera companies.
Branagh’s film was first shown at film festivals in fall 2006. Only a couple of months later, the Met offered its first-ever HD screening — of, coincidentally, “The Magic Flute.”
Today, Branagh’s “Flute” is being screened in Washington as part of the “Opera and Ballet in Cinema” series — which generally broadcasts actual performances, not filmed recreations. These broadcasts have become so prevalent that one wonders whether the impetus to make a big movie on the scale Branagh did can possibly survive the competition. Particularly when it doesn’t seem that the director has much to say about the opera beyond, “Ooh, I love it — look what I did with this part.”