Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Turn of the Screw, English National Opera, 22 October 2009

The Coliseum

The Governess – Rebecca Evans
The Prologue/Peter Quint – Michael Colvin
Miles – Charlie Manton
Flora – Nazan Fikret
Mrs Grose – Ann Murray
Miss Jessel – Cheryl Barker

David McVicar (director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Andrew George (movement)
Sirena Tocco (movement revival)
Adam Silverman (lighting)

Orchestra of English National Opera
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

I have long thought The Turn of the Screw Britten’s finest opera. It is a superior work to Peter Grimes, for instance, which boasts an excellent story, set to music of variable quality; only English insularity could possibly explain the wildly extravagant claims one often hears for it. In The Turn of the Screw, however, genuinely interesting, highly ‘constructed’, music adds to the story, engendering an artwork inevitably different from, yet far from unworthy to be ranked alongside, Henry James’s original tale.

Sir Charles Mackerras certainly made one hear Britten’s score that way. Mackerras’s was an outstanding achievement: if only he would devote, or indeed had devoted, more of his time to repertoire such as this than to his increasingly hard-driven, often downright charmless, Mozart. (A recent Don Giovanni was, I admit, something of an exception.) Here, however, the music lived, breathed, developed with deceptive ease; it responded to and incited the drama, its structure clearly delineated in musical and dramatic terms. As the conductor himself noted in a brief post-performance speech, following a presentation, there are only thirteen players in Britten’s orchestra, yet the composer suggests more extensive forces. There is no monotony but a wealth of instrumental colour and variation. Such economy undoubtedly puts Peter Grimes to shame. And the ENO orchestra was on top form. Every player might justly be mentioned, yet, if only on account of his part’s prominence, Murray Hipkin’s piano playing is perhaps worthy of especial mention.

A fine cast had been assembled. Rebecca Evans was a sympathetic Governess: victim of the supernatural or hysteric? Who knows? Her musical qualities were as high as her dramatic ones, vocal lines retaining an integrity of their own. Ann Murray was at least equally fine as Mrs Grose. Truly inhabiting the character, her suspicions, doubts, and humanity were readily apparent. Cheryl Barker had less to do as Miss Jessel, but was disturbingly malevolent on stage and in voice. I was less impressed by Michael Colvin’s Peter Quint: weird, certainly, but lacking in insidious charm. His intonation sometimes wavered too. Charlie Manton seemed a very young Miles, which has implications for how one considers the character, who thereby comes across as considerably less knowing. Nevertheless, his was a splendidly sung and acted performance, which would have put to shame many adult professional singers. Nazan Fikret seemed to me somewhat miscast as Flora; one can get away with a young Miles but a Flora who looks more than twice his age is unfortunate: a bit too much Little Britain. She sang well enough though. Female diction was not always impeccable, but I have heard far worse.

David McVicar’s production, first seen at ENO – though not by me – in 2007, and before that at the Mariinsky Theatre, is pretty much an unqualified triumph. Where I thought his Salome for the Royal Opera too sensationalist – the work hardly needs it... – this production responds to words and music in so telling a fashion, like a horribly realistic dream, that one can hardly imagine it being done otherwise afterwards. Set ‘in period’, the period is not fetishised as an end in itself, but employed as a source of strangeness. Tanya McCallin’s sets deserve credit here, likewise Adam Silverman’s lighting. All of the characters seem exceptionally well directed. The twisted nature of the story is relished – surely Daily Mail writers and readers should be protesting outside the Coliseum – without being exaggerated. Disturbing realities concerning children, their sexuality, and adults’ responses thereto are portrayed bravely and with sensitivity. If there is a problem with the ghosts, that they are perhaps too apparent, then that is inherent in the work itself. The extras’ movement was originally undertaken by Andrew George and is skilfully revived by Sirena Tocco. All told, and very much more than the sum of its parts, this was an excellent performance, wholeheartedly to be recommended.


JtM said...

If "The Turn of the Screw" boasts such a superior musical score than "Peter Grimes", what is it about that latter that has made it so widely popular? I mean, Alex Ross devotes an entire chapter of his book to it!

Gavin Kelly said...

Mark, you make me very much regret that I will not be able to see a performance. A simplistic and insufficient explanation for the popularity of Peter Grimes (and for your not rating it so highly) is that it is in so many ways redolent of Verdian Grand Opera.

Mark Berry said...

Very sorry too that you won't get to see a performance, Gavin. I think you would have thought well of it too. Strange to think that the production came from the Mariinsky Theatre, where I think the work was receiving its Russian premiere.

I am pretty sure you are right about 'Peter Grimes'. It is not as if it is bad as a first - more or less - opera, but it does not seem to me to possess anything comparable to the sophistication of a score such as this. Some of the 'Grimes' score is indeed highly memorable, if melodramatic, whilst some of it is strangely anonymous. It avoids the structural difficulties of some of Britten's work by relying all too clearly upon its Italianate model. I am tempted also to think that the supernatural brings out the best in Britten, certainly in terms of colour.

As for popularity, I am not quite sure that I follow JtM's point. Alex Ross is free to devote a chapter to whatever he might like; it doesn't even follow from that that he would think 'Peter Grimes' an excellent score, though I seem to remember that he does. More fundamentally, however, operas, or indeed musical works, possessing the best scores are not always popular. Conversely, all the popularity in the world, or at least the world of typical opera audiences, does not for me make Verdi anything more than a third-rate composer, if that.

Gavin Plumley said...

Mark, I have come unstuck here. Not with your review, not with your praise for TURN OF THE SCREW, but with the off-hand dismissal of PETER GRIMES. Do you think that Britten intended to write a score comparable to the sophistication of TURN OF THE SCREW? I don't believe so. He sought to create a bold, uncompromising look at the moral turpitude and hypocrisy of his time. Drama took the lead over music, but the score is so tightly harnessed to those aims - the Passacaglia, with Britten's, I mean's Grimes' viola 'voice' heard lonely above - that it's myopic to dismiss it is parochial on the part of the admirer. After all, isn't PETER GRIMES his most widely performed work?

My complaint, which is hardly original, is that after TURN OF THE SCREW, Britten was too ready to sacrifice drama for musical sophistication. THE DREAM (despite its glories) and DEATH IN VENICE suffer royally from that particular problem, the former I find lacking in heart, the latter wanting dramatic punch and concision. PETER GRIMES may have its failings - the stasis of some of its more oratorio-like delivery, its troubling moral ambiguity (or is this a strength) - but the use of the chorus, the title role alone, these recommend it as a major humanitarian opera in a bleak century. It may not match the model of WOZZECK, but it often comes close.

Mark Berry said...

Well, I suppose we shall have to agree to differ, though again, I am not sure why something being Britten's - or anyone else's - most performed work should testify to anything other than the (largely conservative) tastes of audiences for opera. And even with 'Peter Grimes', if members of the Campaign for Real Barnacles are not satsified by a picture-postcard presentation - which, I am sure we should agree, would be missing the dramatic point - they will howl. As I said, if popularity were a criterion for quality, we should have to consider Verdi as a great composer, perhaps even Donizetti.

It is not that I think 'Peter Grimes' a bad work, just a widely overrated one, partly because many English musical listeners seem to have a strange, at least to my mind, compulsion to venerate music because it is English. Not so long ago I heard someone claiming that Stanford was a better composer than Dvořák, which would simply be funny, if it did not mean that Stanford and worse formed the major diet of so many church choirs.

I think the plot of 'Peter Grimes' and the aims you mention are good, but am less convinced by some of the musical realisation. There might well is an element of aestheticism in my response too, but the only truly great musical dramatist I can think of who is not also a composer of the highest rank in 'purely' musical terms is Gluck: a strange and fascinating case. There are of course plenty of great composers who are not great musical dramatists.

In any case, no one is going to stop performing 'Peter Grimes' because I happen to think 'The Turn of the Screw' is a much better work...