The Turn of the Screw; Ariadne auf Naxos; Les pêcheurs de perles; Mitsuko Uchida | Classical review

Grand theatre, Leeds; Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; Royal Opera House, London; Royal Festival Hall, London

What are the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw? However obvious the question it nags more insistently the closer you get to the story. In the original Henry James tale, the two dead servants who have a malevolent hold over two living children never speak. By contrast, in Britten's chamber opera, shaped into a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, these phantoms are clothed with words and raised to life through music. Their first utterances prompt a dark twist in the score – black notes spill into the white harmonic canvas – and with it the start of a musical screw being turned every bit as insidiously as in the tale being told.

How the director chooses to portray Peter Quint and Miss Jessel tends to define the production – its style, if not its enactment. South African-born Alessandro Talevi, making a bold Opera North debut, lets them haunt from the shadows. The more you strain to see them, the more they shrivel into darkness. This absorbing, disconcerting new staging, designed by Madeleine Boyd with lighting by Matthew Haskins, never relaxes its claustrophobic grasp. In the pit the 13 players, crisply conducted by Richard Farnes, capture the mood with sinewy virtuosity. Despite the miracle of Britten's music, The Turn of the Screw brings no delight. The undertow of sexual corruption, innocence bespoiled and generic neurosis leaves you gasping for air.

Talevi, who achieved remarkable feats on tiny resources as artistic director of Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells, has restricted the action, here updated to the 1920s, to one puzzling room: part nursery, with mahogany furniture and a self-propelled rocking horse; part crooked fantasy, capable of shifting into an almost hallucinogenic landscape of blue lake and lurid succulents in the sickly bright colours of artist Marc Quinn's recent In the Night Garden series (no coincidence that these plants tend to have common names like "prickmadam" and "love-restorer").

Embroilment and complicity are implied through telling detail: Flora plays an impossible cat's cradle with the benign but fearful housekeeper Mrs Grose (the excellent, implacable Yvonne Howard). The child's puppet dolls are miniatures of herself and Miss Jessel, dangled menacingly over the canopy of the big four-poster bed where the virginal new governess endures her fevered nightmares. Room and bed alike resemble The Dream of St Ursula, the martyred virgin, as depicted by Carpaccio in Venice – the city where The Turn of the Screw was premiered in 1954 with the actor David Hemmings singing Miles.

Doubtless that original cast, which included Britten's partner Peter Pears as Quint, was good but it's hard to imagine any could improve much on Opera North's line-up. Fflur Wyn had persuasive, light-toned inscrutability as Flora. Giselle Allen and Benjamin Hulett were precisely sphinx-like as Quint and Jessel. As the Governess, Elizabeth Atherton sang with restless ardour, in unbearable thrall to her charges and locked into her own battle between reality and the wispy figments of a love-starved imagination. Thirteen-year old James Micklethwaite mustered bewitching insouciance, intelligence and astonishing musicality as Miles. What a talent.

"When a new god arrives, we surrender without a word," observes spiky-little-miss Zerbinetta at the end of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, as the music explodes and one thwarted love is replaced by the glorious, if tenuous joys of another. Typically of Strauss, the plot – an amalgam of two contrary stories which rudely jostle for dominion – keeps you emotionally at arm's length, but the score seduces and by the end, even as here with the tenor love interest provided by a Bacchus resembling Brown Owl post-revels, reason is confounded.

Never easy to bring off without a solidly top-class cast, WNO's revival made a heroic effort, going some way to recover balance lost a fortnight ago with a calamitous Fidelio. Sarah Connolly, an ever classy mezzo, captivated as the Composer, racked with frustration, idealism and devotion. Gillian Keith fizzed skittishly and effortlessly as Zerbinetta, an acidulous sop to Orla Boylan's munificent, creamy but variably toned Ariadne. Ricardo Tamura's Bacchus and the large ensemble cast threw themselves, with lively results, into the spirit of Neil Armfield's cheerfully updated Noises Off staging.

There were first-night stumbles. Luckily the orchestra, under Lothar Koenigs, were playing so adroitly that the slipped dialogue and consequent collapse of surtitles in the prologue hardly mattered, expertly brought back on course by the nimble conductor. But never let us complain about the risks of live theatre. The starting point for this work is a rich patron – yes, one of those precious and highly desirable birds – and his whims regarding the entertainment he has commissioned: does he want comedy or tragedy, high art or low? Why not have both? Out of this daft bunfight, Strauss and his collaborator Hoffmansthal shaped a masterpiece.

That's hardly the word you would reach for first to describe Les pêcheurs de perles, Bizet's patchy early opera. Rather too hot on the heels of ENO's recent The Pearl Fishers – there's a limit to how often you want to hear that famous swooning and soupy male duet – the Royal Opera mounted two start-of-season concert performances. In the small cast, only Raymond Aceto as the zealous High Priest sounded absolutely at home either with the French or with the awkward, wrong-sounding vocal lines.

Nicole Cabell's Leila was assured but prone to mawkishness. Gerald Finley's Zurga and John Osborn's Nadir had powerful moments. Orchestra and chorus grew in confidence as the work progressed and their contribution was a bonus. Throwing his energy into every note, the versatile Antonio Pappano conducted. Only days before he had been duetting fabulously as pianist with Joyce DiDonato at the Gramophone Awards in a languorous version of "Over the Rainbow", on balance a piece that does bear frequent repetition though I can see I may regret that remark.

Mitsuko Uchida's musical flexibility is of a different kind. She's not an obvious Wizard of Oz type, though knowing her adventurous and quixotic spirit, she probably knows all Judy Garland's songs and the actions too. Her Royal Festival Hall recital to open the International Piano series focused on Beethoven, opening with the Sonata in E minor Op 90, Chopin and Schumann. His Davidsbündlertänze, a collection of short movements yoked into two sections, can lose its way in performance, but not under Uchida's light, supple fingers and absolute musical discipline. Hear, too, her glorious new Decca recording.

After Chopin's mighty B minor sonata, Uchida's encore was the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight"' sonata. How she negotiated the fiendish pedalling and half-pedalling, on which whole essays are written, must remain a secret, since her feet were all but hidden beneath her flowing jade and aqua outfit. Uchida's seamless, gossamer-fine, haunting playing, in a class of its own, suggested ghosts in the machine.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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