Stark evocation of haunting Edwardian evil



Napoleon once refused to visit Geneva, because, he declared, too many people there spoke English. It seems to particularly like the English composer Benjamin Britten, for its Opera is now offering the third production of his Henry James chamber-opera The Turn of the Screw - always sung in English, though billed as Le tour d'ecrou.

It is an exceptionally strong and thoughtful performance: excellent cast, judicious pacing and direction by Sir Jeffrey Tate and Nicolas Brieger, faultless period costumes from Uta Winkelsen - and positively oneiric de cors-et-lumie res by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau and Alexander Koppelmann, which make this show quite remarkable.

There are scarcely any props but the children's little white bed. There are no painted landscapes or fusty Edwardian rooms; instead, there's a half-seen array of stage-high screens, sometimes revolving vertiginously, becoming solid or transparent walls or mirrors - always evocative of twilit places in and out.

From time to time we see the Governess, the housekeeper Mrs Grose and the two children reflected two or three times over, as if in a drama played out again and again. I've rarely seen operatic decor so beautifully fluid, nor so haunting.

Once or twice Brieger tries too hard for effect: when the Governess is seen in the Act Two prelude struggling with expressionist chains attached to her elbows and knees, for example, and when the evil spirit Peter Quint induces young Miles to don a tutu-frill over his short nightgown.

That latter touch must be an attempt to colour the opaque details of (the late) Quint's and Miss Jessel's corruption of the "ceremony of innocence", which so horrifies the Governess. In the original James tale, there are no details at all, but in these paedophile-obsessed times we apparently want something juicier than nameless evil.

Britten's librettist Myfanwy Piper created the problem by giving Quint and Jessel a live, flesh-and-blood scene on their own, so they can't - dead or not - be figments of the Governess's imagination; but then we want to know what they were really up to. The question is wrong.

Joan Rodgers' Governess is a known and much-admired quantity, occasionally straying into Straussian raptures (or agonies) that overreach the limits of Britten's austere, tightly intricate, hugely clever score. As Mrs. Grose, Della Jones is impeccably staunch and practical. Quint (Kobie van Rensburg) and Miss Jessel (Emma Bell) are presented as high-Romantic spectres of an Edwardian cut, sung with telling edge.

Although the narrative Prologue usually goes to the tenor who sings Quint later, here he was Adrian Thompson, a bulgy demenageur who casually strummed his own accompaniment on the stage piano. Nice, and eloquently plain.

I was glad of the French surtitles as the opera is staged in the 19th-century Batiment des forces motrices, an engineering museum recently converted into a dramatic arts centre. It is a grand setting, but in this spacey acoustic the 13-strong orchestra sometimes defeated the sung words.

Grand Theatre de Geneve Tel + 41 22 418 31 30 Until May 14

Copyright 2003 The Financial Times Limited Financial Times (London) April 25, 2003, Friday USA Edition 1

Symphony tackles difficult program with panache


A near-flawless performance marked the welcome return of principal conductor Martin Fischer-Dieskau to the Centre in the Square podium for masterpiece series concerts on Friday and Saturday.

The principal works on the program -- the well-known Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov and the majestic 2nd Symphony of Sibelius -- were prefaced by a relatively unknown work by Boris Blacher. Based on Paganini's capricious work for solo violin, Blacher's version was dazzling, full of whimsical humour, and displaying a mastery of orchestration and tone colour by the German composer who died in 1975.

That he was a man of the 20th century was evident in the blues and swing sequences in several variations, the lush sound of the strings, the solo licks of various winds, occasional touches of Gershwin flavour -- all in all a delightful surprise to hear and superbly played by the KWS.

Canadian pianist Andre Laplante joined Fischer-Dieskau and the KWS for the Rachmaninov Rhapsody based on the Paganini caprice, displaying a masterful technique and a thorough understanding of the various moods of the work.

Although called a rhapsody -- and, indeed, the mood is rhapsodic -- this piece is also a set of variations on the Paganini theme, and is considered by many to be Rachmaninov's masterpiece.

Laplante played with spectacular panache, full of style and character, his movements and facial expression exactly in sync with the mood changes, and delivering a performance that had the audience on its feet in thunderous appreciation for his remarkable abilities.

The KWS was right on top of this work, playing with remarkable subtlety when in an accompanying role, yet singing out boldly when taking the lead. Only once, in the popular 18th variation, did the violins not have enough level when they took over the melodic line from the piano.

The major work on this remarkable but taxing program was the Sibelius 2nd Symphony, and this is so full of tempo changes and fragmented links that it is a nightmare for players and conductor.

Fischer-Dieskau and the KWS navigated the complex score with unbelievable style and accuracy, delivering a stunning performance, full of the majesty symbolizing the Finnish people's struggle for independence from the dominating Soviet Union.

This composition grows with unstoppable emotional logical power from a quiet pastoral opening to a majestic and unmistakable triumphant conclusion, and the orchestra rose to these demands with a style and understanding supported by the incredible abilities of its players.

Defying easy analysis, the first movement presents successive motifs, the throbbing string chords of the opening, the folksy woodwind countersubject, the recitative for unaccompanied unison strings, the bold cadential figure from the winds then from the full orchestra -- each of these, and the chord progressions and motifs between them, is dismantled, recombined, and then built towards the climax of the movement, stormy, then triumphant.

Then the movement is taken to pieces and the material restated in a new order, closing on the calm string chords with which it began.

The dark mood at the beginning of the tempo andante was skillfully handled by the low tympani roll and pizzicato bass passage, moving through numerous tempo changes to a powerful and craggy brass climax, dramatically played by the KWS brass section.

The poignant nine repeated oboe B flats in the trio section of the vivacissimo, superbly played by Jim Mason, evokes folk music without quoting it, and after the second repeat a moving bridge passage builds into the great opening melody of the finale, full of flashing trumpet fanfares, and after a lamenting second subject the major key returns like a breath of fresh air and the music broadens to a majestic and exultant close.

This was the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony at its best and a triumphant return for Fischer-Dieskau, who, remarkably, conducted the whole program from memory.

Once again we are reminded of the blessings of having an orchestra and conductor like this in our midst.

Copyright 2003 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd. The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario) May 5, 2003 Monday Final Edition


Olivier Messiaen: "Quartet for the End of Time and Theme" and "Variations for Violin and Piano" Yvonne Loroid (piano) Christoph Poppen (violin) Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (cello) Wolfgang Meyer (clarinet) EMI Classics 5 75625 2

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was an extraordinary composer. Intellectual, spiritual and philosophical, his music is not always easy to listen to but perseverance pays off. This recording of his Quartet for the End of Time is one such example.

The quartet was written when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Germany and its first performance in 1941 took place in front of 5000 POWs. An intense and yearning piece, it reflects the suffering but eternal hope that keeps the spirit alive during dark days.

This particular quartet headed by Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loroid, manages to bring those emotions to the surface. The Louange, in particular, is wonderfully played, and should make even the hardest of hearts soften.

Copyright 2003 Nationwide News Pty Limited The Mercury (Australia) May 10, 2003 Saturday

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