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.

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