While the Royal Opera is touring Japan, its home team opened what looks to be mainly an unadventurous season with revivals of two celebrated productions by Jonathan Miller, for which Miller himself returned, having, it seems, modified his view of Così fan tutte drastically, while there probably aren’t two ways of looking at Don Pasquale.

While the Royal Opera is touring Japan, its home team opened what looks to be mainly an unadventurous season with revivals of two celebrated productions by Jonathan Miller, for which Miller himself returned, having, it seems, modified his view of Così fan tutte drastically, while there probably aren’t two ways of looking at Don Pasquale.

The Così was relayed to about 200 cinemas worldwide, as Thomas Allen told us in a characteristically arch speech before retreating into the character of Don Alfonso. Whereas at the last revival of this production, in January, one was simply depressed by the superficiality of the interpretation and the lifelessness of the conducting, this time round the result was positively vicious, an affront to Mozart and Da Ponte for which I can imagine no adequate punishment.

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The conductor was Thomas Hengelbrock, new to the Royal Opera but due to return later in the month with an obscure baroque opera. His conducting of Così was so wildly eccentric that it is hard to begin to convey credibly how weird it sounded and how perverse. The overture was slammed out in a spirit of utter malevolence, punctuated by vast unmotivated pauses, and the same applied to most of what followed. When the music arrived at anything especially significant, the tempo collapsed and the volume increased or became a whisper.

While Wagner famously argued that classical works should be conducted with continuous mild modifications of the basic tempo, Hengelbrock evidently thinks that there should be no basic tempo at all, but simply a non-stop series of surprises – the trouble being, of course, that the result is no surprises at all. And that is exactly what this performance was like: very soon one abandoned any expectations, so experienced no fulfilments or desirable disappointments.

Perhaps it was to be expected that with such conducting the singers would show themselves to be uneasy, with no focused conception of the character they were supposed to be incarnating. Unfortunately, there were plenty of signs that even with a more sympathetic accompaniment they wouldn’t have been adequate to their roles. The Dorabella, Jurgita Adamonyte, and the Guglielmo, Stéphane Degout, sang decently though unremarkably; but the Fiordiligi of Maria Bengtsson was several sizes too small for the house, and she appears not to have a lower register: her two too-large arias were both dismal. As for the Ferrando of Pavol Breslik, though he has his attractions, they weren’t, on this occasion, vocal ones. By the time he arrived at the climactic duet in which Fiordiligi yields to him, his voice, which had previously been tight, had dwindled to a whine, the last thing a seducer needs. The two robust voices were those of Thomas Allen and Rebecca Evans, but neither gave illuminating accounts of their parts.

It seems that Miller has lost his faith in the work, or anyway in his capacity to direct it. When the production was new, in 1995, and in several subsequent revivals, it was a penetrating and upsetting, as well as funny, account of this disturbing work. Now what we see at Covent Garden, and what people all over the world have been exposed to, is a crass italicised series of stale gags, with the men in disguise as loutish hippies equipped anachronistically with camera-phones, and behaving as one might expect in a sub-Rossinian farce.

There are far too many gags, and no searching passages of stillness. The work’s equivocations, which are at the centre of its fascination, are abolished in the cause of easy laughs. Dorabella’s ‘Smanie implacabile’ is partly a send-up of self-dramatisation, as it is of opera seria; but she is in a state of misery, and to laugh at that is as disrespectful as laughing at a child. Much of Mozart’s point in Così is that passion needs highly adult handling, while reducing you to childish helplessness, but Miller has reneged on that, indeed on everything that makes this opera one of the greatest and most compelling of all necessary masterpieces.

Don Pasquale is much more to Miller’s current taste, it seems, though even here I could do with more heart: unlike L’Elisir d’amore, an adorable masterpiece, this opera has no characters to whom one warms much, but it is possible to make them less stereotyped than this lot, who aren’t helped by rarely being in the same room as one another, or even on the same floor, in this doll’s house set, attractive as it is. Poor Barry Banks, as the romantic lead Ernesto, is dressed and coiffeured as an absurd Restoration-drama fop, while the rest of the cast all go through their routines with adequate zest. But I think this opera either comes across as effervescent fun or leaves you fairly flat, and it was on this occasion the second of these that I suffered over a competently managed evening.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated