The Unnamed Governess sings,
and La Esmeralda dances – both live at Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast
by George Fleeton
Since the start of what we now call Opera, very early in the 17th century, there has never been a tradition of opera composition in England, when compared with the heavyweights Italy, France and Germany.
Indeed, until Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes burst on to the world stage in 1945, the history of English-language opera had not even been drafted with anything approaching national pride or self-belief.
Britten was, albeit short-lived, a one man renaissance, with no significant English composer of opera before him since Henry Purcell exactly two hundred and fifty years earlier. Britten wrote about a dozen operas between 1941 (the little known Paul Bunyan) and Death in Venice in 1973.
W H Auden was his first librettist and tenor Peter Pears his life-long muse. And Peter Grimes was of enough international significance for Britten to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948.
He followed this with Billy Budd in 1951 – by far his finest opera, which had been adapted for him, from Herman Melville’s story, by E M Forster.
But it is his most fascinating opera, the ghost story with the unnamed Governess and the two children, The Turn of the Screw, which we focus on here, because it is being screened, live from Glyndebourne, in the QFT on August 21st at 6.00pm.
This opera had been commissioned from Britten by the influential Venice Biennale in 1954, which is why it first saw the light of day at the Fenice opera house in that city.
It is a chamber opera, respecting both the intimacy and the psychological complexity of Henry James’ short novel (which he had published in 1898, over two decades after he had come to settle in England).
Later filmed by Jack Clayton as The Innocents (1961) – where the Governess’ shattered idealism is fore grounded – Britten’s operatic take on the story is equally strong in its portrayal of the abused children, even folding in W B Yeats’ line about ‘the ceremony of innocence being drowned’ from his great poem The Second Coming.
The live cinema presentation on August 21 features Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen in the role of the former governess Miss Jessel.
Glyndebourne’s Don Giovanni
On July 31st, also at the QFT, there had been a well-attended screening of Glyndebourne’s 2010 production of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni.
This was not a happy affair, although it gave a very full reading of da Ponte’s libretto, and of Mozart’s score which was beautifully played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with some stunning fortepiano, harpsichord and cello continuos.
Gerald Finley (whom we had appreciated singing Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Meistersinger, live from Glyndebourne at the QFT on June 26th) seemed at times ill at ease singing the demanding title role of the serial seducer in this unattractive production of one of all opera’s great achievements.
Ill at ease too was lyric soprano Kate Royal, who was obliged to wear most unflattering make-up at the end of Act 1, and then to perform crawling up and down a steeply raked stage in Act 2. All in all this had the effect of disabling the dramatic conviction that da Ponte and Mozart had written into her keynote character, Donna Elvira.
But William Burden, singing the always thankless role of Ottavio, imbued it with considerable appeal, finding new meaning in Mozart’s writing which we may not have noticed before.
The problem with the whole production was the director’s self-indulgent and not at all well argued decision to move it from 1788 Vienna to the via Veneto of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and to ape the designs, for that film, of Piero Gherardi.
He then decided that hell fire would singe Giovanni at the end of Act 1 (a case of mid-point finale in extremis), while things got colder and colder for the Don at his demise in Act 2. None of this worked, not for one minute, in a clumsy, distracting set that dominated the action without rhyme or reason.
In fact the whole affair on stage was at total odds with the decision to use the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its authentic period instruments from the classical period during which Mozart was writing and when the techniques of playing were very different from today.
The orchestra for this Giovanni was much lighter, less robust, more nuanced and textured than a modern orchestra. As a result the action on the stage was not in sympathy with this instrumentation and the set pieces, including the secco recitatives, were over exposed and lacking in atmosphere.
Today’s instruments have a bigger sound, for bigger venues and bigger orchestras and might have, if used, made this production both more credible and more palatable. But the problem here was not in the pit.
Towards the end of his short life Mozart became increasingly concerned about ensuring that each of his new operas was distinct from and ever more sophisticated than the one before it, each with its own atmosphere and its own musical sound world. The Italian word for that is tinta.
(Consider, in this light, the sequence of: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute.)
Glyndebourne’s Giovanni simply either did not find that tinta or, worse, chose to ignore it.
Also still to come, live at the QFT, is La Esmeralda, a ballet in three acts with music by Cesare Pugni.
Pugni was a prolific Italian composer whose latter-life work was done in St Petersburg, where he was official composer for the Imperial Theatres in that city until his death in 1870. Less than half a dozen of his works are danced today of which La Esmeralda (London, 1844) is the best known.
It is based on Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, which had been published in 1831, and which is perhaps better known in our culture as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Pugni’s ballet reaches the QFT on October 9th – live from the newly restored State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia. This is a superb production, by possibly the most famous corps de ballet in the history of this art form; and it is a major coup for the QFT as it continues to spread its wings by presenting from time to time live theatre, opera and ballet in addition to its well established and year round celebration of world cinema.
The Turn of the Screw and La Esmeralda will each be reviewed here in due course.
George Fleeton will also be reporting next month from the 68th Venice Film Festival. And his Opera and Cinema courses also begin again in September:
details of The Silent Cinema and Opera for the Terr!f!ed are on