Branagh's protégée wows Venice Film Festival

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She was cast straight out of university without a professional performance to her name.

But last night Amy Carson, 23, was the belle of the ball at the Venice Film Festival as the star of Kenneth Branagh's new adaptation of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. Branagh plucked her from obscurity for the role of Pamina in his version of the opera, which has been set against the backdrop of the trenches of the First World War.

Until then, Carson's experience of singing in public was limited to her early years as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral - one of the first intake of girls - and tours with the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, where she studied music until last summer. "I heard about the auditions and got in touch at rather a late stage and asked whether there was still a chance I could audition," she told a press conference in Venice yesterday.

"I've always been enchanted by the part of Pamina. I'm very excited to play it because I'm young and Mozart had a very young girl sing it - he created the role for Anna Gottlieb, who was 17 when she sang it."

Carson, from Bristol, said she had sung all her life. Since leaving Cambridge she has pursued a freelance career, working with the likes of the eminent conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.

She was thrilled when Branagh chose her for the movie, which has been funded by Sir Peter Moores, the Littlewoods pools heir and philanthropist who is a supporter of opera sung in English.

Working with Branagh was a dream come true. "Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play that I discovered and studied in depth at school, and to see Ken's Hamlet completely took my breath away," she said.

"He made me believe that instead of just reading a Shakespeare play, I could pick it up and do it and bring it alive." The £14m production, with a libretto translated from the German by Stephen Fry, is Branagh's first venture into opera.

"Although the comedy and the charm of the music hit me first, I was struck by the intensity and the drama of it,' he said. "It seemed that in the music there was a kind of plea for peace."

The actor/director admitted he had tried to make it as provocative as possible.

"Whatever piece of art you attempt, you try and bring you own originality to it," he said.

The Magic Flute has been made before - by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman - but some critics believe that Mozart's operas do not work well on film.

Sir Peter Moores admitted that some operatic productions had failed to translate to the big screen. But he added: "I thought this was a brilliant idea that would work.

"I find the film more and more engrossing and moving."

The opera is the story of Pamina, a princess under the restrictive influence of her mother, the Queen of the Night. Sarastro, a priest, takes Pamina to a temple to rescue her but the queen induces the young Prince Tamino to find her daughter and bring her back. But Tamino falls under the influence of the priest and finds true love with Pamina.

Branagh's next production will see him directing Jude Law and Michael Caine in a remake of Sleuth, an adaptation by Harold Pinter of the Anthony Shaffer play, which was originally filmed with Caine and Laurence Olivier.