Music review: The best Screw of my whole life

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The unanswered - and perhaps unanswerable - question at the end of Britten's The Turn of the Screw is why the young boy, Miles, should die. Having spent the opera torn between the ostensible forces of good (the Governess) and evil (Peter Quint), he has renounced the latter. Virtue has prevailed. But still he dies; and Deborah Warner's new Royal Opera production at the Barbican comes no closer to a convincing explanation than has any other production I've seen.

But never mind. This is a considered, searching, startlingly intelligent response to a score which delivers richly-textured ambiguities with strict economy of means. And economy is a mission statement of this show, which plays against the bare walls and exposed machinery of the theatre's backstage - shrouded in darkness and enlarged into a cavernous space by removal of the front proscenium.

Enlarging a moderate-sized performing area for a chamber opera may sound perverse, but it works. The cast look small and vulnerable, with humans and ghosts drawn into a sort of community with each other. Supernatural effects are sparing, subverted into surreal tricks with inanimate objects on loan from the Tate Gallery (kinetic wood sculpture, a floating piano) rather than attaching to the ghosts themselves. And there's a studied casualness in the performances that involves some loss (the "Ceremony of Innocence" duet needs more formality to register as the opera's pivotal moment) but many gains in the extraordinary, low-key finesse of the perfomances.

It's probably the finest all-round cast The Screw has ever had. Ian Bostridge's Quint is smoothly, boyishly seductive: the sort of young school-teacher who get sacked for unspecified reasons. His response to text is fascinating in its subtlety, the beauty of his voice pure and haunting. Joan Rodgers is a fabulous Governess, at the edge of neurosis, but with depth, affecting, wonderfully sung. Vivian Tierney's Miss Jessel and Jane Henschel's Mrs Grose are luxury casting - as is the masterful presence of Sir Colin Davis, in the pit to conduct the 13-piece band. And the children are (in every sense) frighteningly able. Twelve-year-old Edward Burrowes is the most sophisticated Miles imaginable, and 10-year-old Pippa Woodrow the most formidable small girl, reclaiming Flora from the diminutive adults who usually take the role.

Glasgow's Theatre Royal has been refurbished, and I spent much of Tuesday night wondering why the shiny new gold leaf round the proscenium stops half-way. Aesthetic statement (a post-modern jibe on theatre camp) or economic accident (the money ran out)? But I applaud the loss of the flock wallpaper that used to make the auditorium look like a grand tandoori takeaway. The resultant harder surfaces, plus an extended pit, make for an enormously improved orchestral sound, which the conductor Richard Armstrong puts to work in Rigoletto, Scottish Opera's first new production for the new-look space.

This Rigoletto marks the opera-directing debut of Kenny Ireland, currently in artistic charge of the Lyceum, Edinburgh. Before he turned to directing, Mr Ireland was an actor in TV's infamous "Acorn Antiques"; and old habits have obviously died hard. What he turns out here is risibly provincial nonsense, and proof that Rigoletto is not, as people tell you, indestructible. It's actually a rather fragile synthesis of veristic truth and surreal fantasy, with absurd stage requirements that need either to be camouflaged or celebrated.

Ireland goes initially for celebration, setting the action in what looks like the arcaded interior of a small Italian theatre and filling the stage with 19th-century masqueraders. So far so good. But then it's downhill all the way, as the theatre-set proves unworkable for the next scene. Rigo- letto's house is turned into a sort of fairy grotto, and the design subsides into one of the least competent I've ever seen for Sparafucile's inn. With characters forced to "hide" behind knee-high rocks and house- plants, it's the stuff of farce. Except that farce needs energy, and that's in short supply as well.

Paul Charles Clarke, as the Duke, makes the most reticent, inhibited of libertines and, like the rest of the cast, carries the question "What do I do next?" across his face. He doesn't seem to have had any clear answers from the director and consequently throws the role away - which is a shame because he sings well, with a fine, incisive resonance. Of Claire Rutter's Gilda I'd say much the same. And there's a major problem with the Rigoletto: a Macedonian baritone called Boris Trajanov who makes a decent sound, but with a poor technique and no theatrical intelligence. He works hard, and he no doubt feels the conflict between Rigoletto's loving and acidic tempers. But it comes out as Bela Lugosi with a bad back: coarse, uninteresting, unmoving. The only consolation is to sit comfortably and enjoy that huge, full-toned orchestral sound, admiring the smack and thrust of Richard Armstrong's beat, and letting yourself be distracted by the mystery of the missing gold-leaf.

Riddle: when is a pianist not a pianist? Answer (sort of): when he turns his recital into a theatre piece and himself into its chief character. This is not something that happens often on the concert platform, except in metaphorical terms; but it happened, up-front and overtly, last weekend in a curiously dramatised recital I heard in Hanover, north Germany.

Part of the Lower Saxony Music Festival, it was one of the 80-plus concerts that take place there in grand houses, churches, ancient barns and other venues throughout the region: all paid for by a local chain of savings banks. The pianist was the French-based Russian Yuri Afanassiev: a past winner of the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, with a reputation for wilful eccentricity that was only partly realised in the heavy-pedalling arm-movements and general self-absorption of his programme's first half. Comparatively conventional, the programme formed a neatly modelled palindrome of Debussy, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Debussy. The playing was distinguished, if exaggerated.

But the cookie crumbled in the second half. Afanassiev played Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as a drunken, embittered 20th- century reincarnation of Mussorgsky who, between the sections of the piece, changed into a dressing-gown, poured himself quantities of vodka and ranted to the audience about artists and society.

The rant passed me by: it was in German, and I'm not fluent. But the playing was another matter. It wascrazily indulgent, with elastic tempi and a fierce attack. It looked and sounded like a hammered chisel biting into stone. It ended up more a crucifixion than a performance, nailing poor Mussorgky's score to an imposed agenda, though it came supported by enough technique to pass as credible. I won't forget it, though I don't hope to repeat it. The idea of dramatised recitals strikes me in any event as dangerous. What next? Performances of Beethoven by pianists pretending to be deaf? Tchaikovsky nights complete with suicide? Nein danke.

Themed recitals are another matter, and Lower Saxony had a beautifully prepared example in a barn near Uelzen given by our own Consort of Musicke: the vocal and instrumental ensemble fronted by Anthony Rooley. With a programme designed to show how the territorial divisions of early-17th- century Europe were surpassed by culture - generally Italian - it contrasted settings of the same (Italian) texts by composers from different countries, and made a nicely local feature of the composers who passed through Kassel (usually en route to Italy!), enjoying there the largesse of the Landgraf of Hesse, who kept one of the most musically enlightened courts in the North.

It's been a long time since I heard the Consort, and I was taken aback by the quality of what they did, collectively and individually. Among the first of their kind in period performance, they're still a strong and confident ensemble. But, alas, for not much longer. This was one of their last appearances - at least, in the format for which they have become famous. And famous they certainly are. I sat through this concert surrounded by Germans who knew far more about the Consort's history (since 1969) than I did. If they don't survive, they'll be missed. Especially in Lower Saxony.

'The Turn of the Screw': Barbican, EC2 (0171 304 4000), Mon & Wed.

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