The Turn of the Screw, Grand Theatre, Leeds<br/>Strange News, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Alessandro Talevi's high-risk production around an old four-poster pays off, with a terrific Opera North cast and an astonishing richness of sound
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The Independent Culture

Bly House is shrunk to a four-poster bed in Alessandro Talevi's Opera North production of The Turn of the the Screw.

Place of slumber and seduction, birth and death, this relic of Victorian order sits centre-stage in Madeleine Boyd's tilted nursery set, a frame for the violent jolts and lurches of the Governess's journey, a theatre for peculiar fantasies and games, the engine of Britten's opera. Below it lie the puppets that Flora will use to tell her story, behind it a rocking horse that bucks and jerks, riderless in the half-light. Powered by the children's dreams at the end of Act I, the faded floral wallpaper lifts to reveal a tropical Neverland, half-Rousseau, half-Sendak, where Miles cavorts. Can this loose-limbed boy be bad? Slipping into the Governess's bed, his arm extended in invitation, he can.

Set in the aftermath of the First World War, this production is more sympathetic to the Governess than most. It's not difficult to imagine her backstory – a fiancé lost to the trenches, perhaps – or to believe in her chaste fright at the children's oddness. The infatuation with her employer is downplayed, her dedication taken at face value. Cherished, mourned and feared by Miles (James Micklethwaite) and Flora (Fflur Wyn), the ghosts of Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) and Peter Quint (Benjamin Hulett) grow in stature and definition as the upright, earnest Governess (Elizabeth Atherton) begins to believe in them too. Excepting Mrs Grose (Yvonne Howard), she is the only character who is not in thrall to sexual impulses, the only innocent left at Bly.

While Atherton holds the show, Talevi has fun with the children – placing them on the tallboy to eavesdrop in doll-like stillness, sending Flora up to the canopy of the four-poster to act out the death of Miss Jessel, replacing Miles's piano practice with a wild eurythmic dance to the gramophone's brittle scales and Alberti bass. Hulett's Quint moves cat-like, his red hair brightening with each twist of Britten's variations, his voice transformed from the clipped upper-class diffidence of the Prologue to a heroic, insinuating oiliness, while Allen's Jessel clutches a belly taut with late pregnancy, her face twisted with fury and bitterness. The vocal characterisation of Opera North's ensemble cast is exceptionally good throughout: a high-risk, intense reading of dry gasps and baleful swoons that reflects Richard Farnes's tense realisation of the score. An astonishing richness and diversity of sound and texture from just 13 players, and one that creeps under the skin and stays there.

The composer Iannis Xenakis had little interest in conventional notions of vocal beauty. Nuits, which opens with microtonal keening and closes with a grunt, is a case in point. Performed by the group Exaudi, it was the first of two works awkwardly tacked on to London Sinfonietta's UK premiere of Rolf Wallin and Josse de Pauw's Strange News, the other being Maldon – Michael Finnissy's gory legend of Anglo-Saxon/Viking warfare for baritone soloist (Leigh Melrose), choir, percussion and trombones. In a different context, it would be easy to go with the flow, to recoil from inhumanity as Xenakis and Finnissy presumably intended. But Strange News presents a world in which all assumptions about violence are turned upside down. March into a village, steal the goats, murder the adults and rape and abduct the children and those children will still want to please, to be good.

Goodness is central to Wallin and De Pauw's multimedia work. Narrated by actor Arthur Kisenyi, Strange News is a first-person memoir of a former child soldier, brutalised into being "a good soldier" and later quietly desperate to be "a good person". The video opens with an introduction by a newsreader (Jon Snow) before a blizzard of horrific documentary footage from Uganda and the Congo. Helicopters thunder overhead (surround sound speakers), with the crack of gunfire and the tight, blistered, glaring report of hard-bitten strings. What surprises, almost guiltily, is the beauty of some of Wallin's music: the sweetness of oboe, flute and muted trumpet, the dissolving delicacy of the electroacoustic landscape, the affectless balm of the African rain. "I want a life like yours" concludes the narrator, "Would that be possible?"

Mitsuko Uchida's Royal Festival Hall recital of Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin was a quiet revolution. Regardless of who admired whom at any given point (Schumann declared Chopin a genius in 1831), here were three composers as unalike in temperament and timbre as can be imagined, and four works with distinct soundworlds. We think we know what to expect of each of them. Yet here was the second movement of Beet-hoven's Sonata in E minor, Opus 90, played with a Schumannesque vocal fluidity, its bass notes not percussive, almost bowed. Here was robust Beethovenian wit in Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze and, more surprisingly, the soft gleam of Chopin. Here, in Chopin's Prelude in C sharp minor, was the cool shimmer of Schumann's "Mondnacht" from Lieder-kreis. Here in the Largo of his Sonata No 3 in B minor was the poise of the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" (later the single encore).

Such connections cannot be made without the most detailed preparation. Weight is given to notes we mightn't notice, while the cannonade of Chopin's Finale seemed airborne, almost easy. Uchida's genius is such that this study is cast off in the moment of performance, so that infinitesimal attention to articulation, nuance, colour and voicing does not stifle the breath of a phrase. Such delicate, joyful playing, such arresting musical ideas.

'The Turn of the Screw' (0844 848 2706) to 21 Oct, then touring

Next Week:

Anna Picard brushes up her Shakespeare with Alexander Goehr's King Lear adaptation, Promised End