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Dirty Work Afoot

Britten as Written


Considering that Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw for Collier’s Weekly , a popular fiction magazine in 1898 as it was until its demise some 60 years later, his ghost story has borne the weight of considerable serious analysis and interpretation. There is reason to suggest that music — i.e., Benjamin Britten’s tightly crafted chamber-opera setting of 1954 — puts forward the best of all explanations of the wavering fault lines between fantasy and reality in James’ out-of-reach landscape. The performances in the new BBC Opus Arte DVD of Britten’s opera (distributed in the U.S. by Naxos), conducted by Richard Hickox — which is not a staging but a re-enactment in a natural setting — allow the work to take its own shape. Katie Mitchell’s opening up of the drama frees us from having to surmount the unnatural barrier (in this instance) of equating a character’s inner thoughts with the spectacle of singing mouths and artificial body movement on a cramped stage. Since much of Britten’s opera consists of inner dialogue, the device is splendidly successful here as it might not be in, say, La Traviata.


The setting is a not-all-that-grand country mansion in decaying, swampy woodlands, with mists arising to mask the ghosts’ coming and going. The cast is as good as you could want, with an insolence in the young Miles (Nicholas Kirby Johnson) that you want to slap down on first meeting, and a plain-Jane helplessness in Lisa Milne’s Governess that tells you she is up for defeat from the start. Mark Padmore is the Quint and also sings the Prologue; something both ingratiating and slimy in his tenorial thrusts chills you from the start. Their voices under Hickox form a fine ensemble, without ever allowing this harrowing, vivid musical drama to take on the artifice of mere opera. Like the studio-created version of John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer that I wrote about late last year, this DVD points the direction of a new joining of music drama and video to the greater enhancement of both.




Ring Around

The treasure of DVD operas currently available, and rapidly growing, is astonishing: No similar luxury of choice has ever been available on any previous medium, not even counting the “pirate” versions of, say, legendary Callas performances that once drove collectors gaga — and play-actors too, as in Terence McNally’s Lisbon Traviata . European and Australian opera houses televise most of their productions, and these show up a few months later on DVDs, most often in decent productions properly translated. Live-performance recording has its dangers, of course, but one major advantage is the assurance of freedom from incompetent lip-synching. Some of the earlier opera videos — the Karajan studio productions, for example — are virtually unwatchable in this regard.


Wagner fares well — in quantity if not always quality. I wrote some time ago about the Eurotrash Ring of the Nibelung from the Stuttgart Opera, with four different directors imposing four ludicrous “modernized” settings on the timeless mythology. Now, from Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, another Ring takes shape, also on Opus Arte. Of the four dramas, Die Walküre and Siegfried are already at hand. Bertrand de Billy is the conductor; he has been here, with the Los Angeles Opera, in something-or-other. Falk Struckmann is the Wotan, Deborah Polaski the Brünnhilde; both are excellent German-repertory singers at the top of their powers. John Treleaven, the Siegfried, is not up to their level, however. I found him brash and rather squally, and kept dwelling on Anna Russell’s immortal description of Siegfried as “a veritable Li’l Abner.” Harry Kupfer is the stage director; his production was originally mounted at the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin.


Kupfer’s work is the principal attraction here; these discs — and presumably the entire Ring when the other parts appear — document one of the most creative of the new generation of European stage directors. Like his Eurotrash-oriented lesser colleagues, he tends to rethink and, thus, to recast classic operatic material. The Ring seems to play out in a vast enclosure hemmed in with geometric patterns generated by tubular lights that change color and thereby create dramatic undertones and overtones. Most of Valhalla’s denizens, Wotan included, are thugs, and that adds an important level of credibility to Wagner’s cynical dramatic design. Time and place are kept purposefully fluid. If you’re not going to stage these grand music dramas as Wagner’s own high Romanticism — as they are on the Metropolitan Opera videos and in Stephen Wadsworth’s staging at the Seattle Opera — I think these Harry Kupfer productions are, easily, the next best thing.


Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s controversial take on Wagner’s Parsifal got my back up in San Francisco some years ago, and has since traveled to Chicago, London and now to an Opus Arte DVD via a production at Baden-Baden conducted by Kent Nagano. The problem here is not one of changed time or place — as it is, for example, in the Syberberg film, which I find otherwise thrilling — but of a whole overlay of ersatz symbolism with which Lehnhoff has burdened both the work and its audience. The look of the production he has created, and the performance under Nagano — in which Christopher Ventris, the Parsifal, has grown greatly since San Francisco — are eloquent and moving; the Gurnemanz of Matti Salminen leaves me all aquiver to see and hear him here, in the Robert Wilson staging, come November. But having already succumbed to the spell of Wilson’s version in Houston some years ago, I’ve come to resent the false turnings that Lehnhoff obliges me to follow in his cockeyed interpretation, however splendid the musical performance under Nagano.


Obiter dictum: You need something cool after all this, and so, on ArtHaus, there is Pierre le Grand . André Modeste Grétry is the composer, a lesser (but not by much) contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. It’s a comic opera with spoken dialogue having to do (but not much) with the founding of the city of St. Petersburg by Peter the Great and his several girlfriends. The text, please note, is by one Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who went on to write the play Leonore, or Conjugal Love , which served as the basis for Beethoven’s Fidelio .


Still here? Pierre le Grand is sung, in French and Russian, by the Helikon Opera of St. Petersburg under Sergey Stadler. The voices are young and agreeable. The production looks as if painted on bed sheets for the grand finale at a summer camp, and somehow that is exactly right for the aura around this whole enterprise. The music, as with everything in the small repertory of Grétry that anyone gets to hear, is fabulously beautiful. Parsifal it isn’t.