Michael Tanner

Great Britten

The Turn of the Screw<br /> English National Opera L&rsquo;heure espagnole; Gianni Schicchi<br /> Royal Opera House

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The Turn of the Screw

English National Opera

L’heure espagnole; Gianni Schicchi

Royal Opera House

Each time I see Britten’s The Turn of the Screw I am more impressed by the brilliance of the music, and more irritated by the unprofitable ambiguities of the drama. The first revival at the Coliseum of David McVicar’s stunningly brilliant 2008 production of the piece intensified both these feelings. The overwhelming source of satisfaction was the staggering conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras. It is inconceivable that there should be a more complete realisation of the score, superbly played by 13 members of the ENO orchestra. It sounded more beautiful than it has ever done, sometime serenely so, sometimes wildly: the loud interlude after Miles has been playing his pseudo-Mozart sonata sounded like a new creation. The apparent tranquillity of much of the music only gave the sinister power of the rest greater intensity.

The huge gloomy sets of Tanya McCallin are just as effective, employing the whole stage but creating a trapped world, in which sliding walls, reflected figures, stealthy stage hands and supernumerary actors make you feel comprehensively unsafe. The adult female principals are the same as in 2008, and just as good, Ann Murray a comfortable Mrs Grose, Rebecca Evans now more unstable as the Governess, and having an OTT fit when things are getting on top of her. The children are a problem: Nazan Fikret first sang Flora in 2000, when she was 12, and she looks like a sulking adolescent most of the time, unlikely to be carrying a doll — she and Miles bury the doll at some length in the ‘Bells’ scene, a touch I didn’t notice before, but one suggesting casual indifference. The Miles of Charlie Manton (he alternates with another one) is, by contrast, too young-seeming, and only at moments anything more than the first soloist in the King’s Nine Lessons and Carols, so their contributions are unbelievable.

One gets to the stage with this opera where it seems just as likely that the ghosts are real as not, that the corrupting is all being done by the overwrought Governess, whose imagination is creating terrors to subjugate the children to her will, that the children were evil from the word Go and corrupted Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and were responsible for their deaths, that the real villain of the piece is the unseen Guardian, who didn’t even bother to come down when Quint and Miss Jessel died, so is in his own way the worst child abuser, not minding what happens at Bly as long as he can get on with his ‘affairs’, and no doubt other possibilities — but somehow I don’t mind, because the music, mesmerising as it is, doesn’t actually help to create character or engage sympathies, but only creates atmosphere and produces frissons. I was relieved to notice that the programme lists three chaperones for the children, presumably to obscure from them any notion of what kind of opera they are taking part in.

At the Royal Opera, too, there was a first revival, this one of Richard Jones’s L’heure espagnole and defiantly anachronistic Gianni Schicchi. Musically the performances were beyond reproach, and the Ravel piece is in all respects ideal. Christine Rice was replaced as Concepcion by Ruxandra Donose, presumably to have yet another baby — and looking pregnant in that role would be more than usually unsuitable. Donose is a more flagrant tart of a Concepcion than Rice was, and one really did wonder how dim the muleteer Ramiro is not to realise that she is coming on to him. But Christopher Maltman is a fabulous Ramiro — he must be preserved on DVD. Whatever the giant grandfather clocks may be made of, the ease with which he manoeuvres them is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone; and so is his smirk when the penny finally drops as Concepcion invites him upstairs ‘sans horloge’. The minor suitors and husband are excellent, too, and it seems to me that the only let-down is the music. Ravel’s insistence on the close similarity of human beings and machines is all very well, but it leads not only to unemotional dryness, but also to a response which is more of a rictus than a smile: his music seems to be, here, the product of another mechanism as lacking in vitality as a clock.

Gianni Schicchi now has Thomas Allen in the title role, so can’t go wrong. There are passages where pure professionalism keeps his voice in existence, but others where his tone flows freely. The total impact of the performance is wholly convincing. The rest of the cast is decent but no one is remarkable. Jones’s mania for updating here becomes more than usually tiresome, turning a masterpiece of comedy into a daytime TV sitcom. Both pieces are handsomely served in the pit by Antonio Pappano.