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BOOKS & ARTS

While Wagner famously argued that classical works should be conducted with continuous mild modifications of the basic tempo, Hengelbrock evidently thinks that there should be no basic tempo at all, but simply a non-stop series of surprises – the trouble being, of course, that the result is no surprises at all. And that is exactly what this performance was like: very soon one abandoned any expectations, so experienced no fulfilments or desirable disappointments.

Perhaps i t was to be expected that with such conducting the singers would show themselves to be uneasy, with no focused conception of the character they were supposed to be incarnating. Unfortunately, there were plenty of signs that even with a more sympathetic accompaniment they wouldn’t have been adequate to their roles. The Dorabella, Jurgita Adamonyte, and the Guglielmo, Stéphane Degout, sang decently though unremarkably; but the Fiordiligi of Maria Bengtsson was several sizes too small for the house, and she appears not to have a lower register: her two too-large arias were both dismal.As for the Ferrando of Pavol Breslik, though he has his attractions, they weren’t, on this occasion, vocal ones. By the time he arrived at the climactic duet in which Fiordiligi yields to him, his voice, which had previously been tight, had dwindled to a whine, the last thing a seducer needs.The two robust voices were those of Thomas Allen and Rebecca Evans, but neither gave illuminating accounts of their parts.

It seems that Miller has lost his faith in the work, or anyway in his capacity to direct it. When the production was new, in 1995, and in several subsequent revivals, it was a penetrating and upsetting, as well as funny, account of this disturbing work. Now what we see at Covent Garden, and what people all over the world have been exposed to, is a crass italicised series of stale gags, with the men in disguise as loutish hippies equipped anachronistically with camera-phones, and behaving as one might expect in a sub-Rossinian farce.

There are far too many gags, and no searching passages of stillness. The work’s equivocations, which are at the centre of its fascination, are abolished in the cause of easy laughs. Dorabella’s ‘Smanie implacabile’ is partly a send-up of self-dramatisation, as it is of opera seria; but she is in a state of misery, and to laugh at that is as disrespectful as laughing at a child. Much of Mozart’s point in Così is that passion needs highly adult handling, while reducing you to

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The doll’s house set of Don Pasquale childish helplessness, but Miller has reneged on that, indeed on everything that makes this opera one of the greatest and most compelling of all necessary masterpieces.

Don Pasquale is much more to Miller’s current taste, it seems, though even here I could do with more heart: unlike L’Elisir d’amore, an adorable masterpiece, this opera has no characters to whom one warms much, but it is possible to make them less stereotyped than this lot, who aren’t helped by rarely being in the same room as one another, or even on the same floor, in this doll’s house set, attractive as it is. Poor Barry Banks, as the romantic lead Ernesto, is dressed and coiffeured as an absurd Restoration-drama fop, while the rest of the cast all go through their routines with adequate zest. But I think this opera either comes across as effervescent fun or leaves you fairly flat, and it was on this occasion the second of these that I suffered over a competently managed evening.

Television In search of lost time James Delingpole My friend Mickie O’Brien, late of 47 and 44 RM Cdo, died the other day. I’m not sure how old he was — late 80s, I would imagine — but, whatever, it was good going for a man who should have been killed at least twice in the 1940s, once at the Battle of Kangaw when the Japs shot away half his stomach and once when he walked deliberately into a minefield to rescue a French farmer. For one exploit or another Mickie won an MC.

The question I used to ask Mickie most often was how he managed to cope with so much fear and horror. He always replied that he had the perfect temperament for wartime soldiering: ‘a strong sense of fatalism and no imagination’.

I wonder if these are the same characteristics that helped him enjoy such a decent innings. Or did all the booze pickle him? Or was it in the genes? These are things I often wonder about my surviving elderly friends. Is there anything I can do to be more like them? How much of it is in the mind (such as the cussedness of the dear Halifax pilot chum I call Cantankerous Old Bugger — COB for short) and how much of our fate was already predetermined on the day we were born?

This being a TV review, I am, uncharacteristically, able to give you a pertinent, TV-related answer.That’s because of a marvellous experiment the BBC conducted this week in a three-part series called TheYoung Ones (BBC 1, Tuesday). What they did was to take a group of celebrity pensioners — actress Liz Smith, former editor Derek Jameson, ex-newsreader Kenneth Kendall, hoofer Lionel Blair, umpire Dickie Bird and actress Sylvia Syms — and see whether, by transporting them back in time, they could help them regain their lost youth.

It was all based on an experiment that was originally conducted at Harvard in the 1970s. Apparently, if you can trick an old person’s brain into thinking it’s still in its prime then mind and body will follow. To this end, the BBC created a kind of pensioners’ equivalent of the Big Brother house

SPECTATOR.CO.UK/ARTS For a review of This is England ’86

the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk