Wednesday 2 July 2014

The Turn of the Screw, Opera Holland Park, 1 July 2014

Holland Park

The Governess – Ellie Laugharne
Peter Quint – Brenden Gunnell
Mrs Grove – Diana Montague
Miss Jessel – Elin Pritchard
The Prologue – Robin Tritschler
Miles – Dominic Lynch
Flora – Rosie Lomas
Annilese Miskimmon (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)

City of London Sinfonia
Steuart Bedford (conductor)

The absurdity of last year’s Britten over-saturation seemed to prove to the converted that their hero conquered all; to the rest of us, it confirmed us in our scepticism or, better, selectivity. Opera Holland Park did well to defer its first staging of a Britten opera until this year, and did better still to select The Turn of the Screw, by some distance the finest of the composer’s operas. It is not entirely free of the mere cleverness that bedevils many of Britten’s other scores, but the commands of construction and form keep that and other shortcomings more or less in check throughout. Indeed, the dialectic between the serial turnings of the screw and the development of the story, the impedimental and yet ultimately generative grit thereby ensured, are as much part and parcel of the drama as the ghost story itself.

A successful staging should recognise that as much as a successful performance; at the very least, it will not stand in the way. Anniliese Miskimmon’s production seems to me to do just that. It provides space for the score to ‘turn’, not in a hands-off abdication of responsibility, but with stage direction that treads a properly uneasy – and properly productive – line between freedom and determinism, an antimony lying at the root not only of many a philosophical problem, but equally many a dramatic problem. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is surely the operatic exemplar in that respect, but Britten’s great respect for the Austrian master (as well as for his pupil, Berg, whose closed forms in Wozzeck have such profound implications for The Turn of the Screw) tends in any case to underpin, audibly and visually, his stronger works. What might on occasion therefore seem an uncertainty as to how the Governess is reacting, what she will do, is actually better understood as an indication of the extent to which she is trapped. Likewise with the premonitions of past and future, the latter presented by the directorial innovation of an old-fashioned, blackboarded schoolroom in Leslie Travers’s excellent designs, starkly atmospheric, with room for the drama to emerge from between the cracks. The regimented processions of schoolboys seek not, or at least so it seemed to me, to hammer home a point, but to present a possibility for reflection. Who are they? Are they ‘real’, whatever that might mean? Do they evoke a past, whether the work’s or the composer’s, a present, or a future? Again, they work in tandem with the score.

It is more or less impossible for us, especially in the light of recent and ongoing legal cases, not to pick up on the barely suppressed paedophilia in Britten’s opera. That is not shied away from, especially in the case when Miles, quite unsensationally, apparently quite ‘naturally’, removes his shirt, ready for his bath. But again, the point is not hammered home; it is perfectly possible for a production successfully to highlight this element, as indeed did David McVicar’s superlative ENO staging, but it is not the only way. Here, the space left for reflection enabled the possibility at least – it is largely up to the audience member whether to take it up – of asking him- or herself the difficult questions concerning personal and social complicity. To what extent is ‘childhood’ an adult, even voyeuristic, construct? Again, the construction of the opera, just as much as biographical knowledge, suggests answers that many will not want to hear.

Musical performance is most crucial of all, of course, in enabling the heightened state at which we might be compelled to ask ourselves such questions. I was slightly disappointed – and surprised to be slightly disappointed – at Steuart Bedford’s conducting of the first act. It certainly was not bad, and I suspect that there was an element of becoming used to the acoustic: both for the performers, with an audience, and for us in the audience too. But everything seemed tighter after the interval. The cruel, glistening beauty of Britten’s score registered more powerfully in the City of London Sinfonia’s now-expert performance; so too did the deadly constructionism of the composer’s musico-dramatic method. I should very much have liked to hear the first act again, if only to discover whether a second performance would have emerged the more tightly, or whether indeed the failing had been mine.

At the heart of the drama stood Ellie Laugharne’s Governess. Her helplessness and her goodness – not saccharine, but human – came across powerfully indeed, torn as she was between incompatible, maybe impossible, paths to take. Brenden Gunnell’s Peter Quint was eerily, at times frighteningly seductive: all too easy to succumb to, all too difficult to pin down with simplistic oppositions between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’. As his accomplice – or is she that at all? – Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel added a feminine complication that seemed intriguingly wilder. The compromised ‘normality’ of Diana Montague’s Mrs Grose registered with startling immediacy, little short of a master-class in the role. Robin Tritschler’s Prologue contributed ambivalence and ambiguity from the outset: perhaps not an unreliable narrator, but one we at least asked ourselves whether we should trust. As the children, Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas both impressed greatly. Lynch’s Miles conjured up just the right sort of all-too-pure innocence, disconcerting and provocative in context, as surely it was for Britten. Lomas’s Flora offered an interesting foil, slightly controlling, productively poised between ‘childhood’ and something else. It is difficult, of course, to discern precisely where personal performance ends and directorial conception begins; but that is the hallmark of a fine opera production. This is certainly one of the finest performances I have witnessed at Opera Holland Park.