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.