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‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

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Performances

Nazan Fikret (Flora) [© Neil Libbert]
11 Dec 2007

The Turn of the Screw at ENO

Not long ago, English National Opera declared an intention to capitalise on its name and history by placing greater emphasis on English works.

Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw

English National Opera, London
30 November 2007

Above: Nazan Fikret (Flora)
All photos © Neil Libbert

 

We have already seen Purcell's 'King Arthur' and Vaughan Williams's 'Sir John in Love' (with the same composer's 'Riders to the Sea' to follow next season) but the composer playing the largest part in this revival of the English operatic repertoire is Benjamin Britten. The operas covered so far – 'Billy Budd' and 'Death in Venice' – have proved some of ENO's greatest successes of the last two seasons, and this latest co-production of 'The Turn of the Screw' with the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg (where it premiered in 2006), is no exception.

Director David McVicar, always good at exploring themes of corrupted innocence, views the story's central ambiguities from an unusual angle by attributing the evil forces to the children rather than the ghosts. Rather than being innocents possessed by an evil force, or blank slates ripe for the overworkings of the Governess's imagination, these two children were quite clearly the principal malevolent influence in this drama, and the source of the ghosts' powers from the start. In front of Mrs Grose they were little angels, but whenever her back was turned they were engaging in subversive rites: turning Flora's doll into a pig, digging a grave for the same doll while singing their cherubic Benedicite, and – in Miles's case – making sexual advances towards the Governess.

And yet McVicar still threw in a note of doubt; for example, the schoolroom scene between the Governess and Miss Jessel was not a dialogue, as it is often played, but two independent monologues, suggesting that neither woman has a greater foothold in reality than the other. Chillingly, despite the obviously menacing character of the children, the audience was still seduced into siding with them. The characters' relationships with one another and with the audience are carefully and intricately designed, but somehow the audience never feels overtly manipulated – just disturbed.

The silent cast of walk-on servants, fast becoming one of McVicar's production trademarks, were ever-present as scene-shifters, and went some way towards addressing the issue of creating a suitably intimate, claustrophobic atmosphere in a theatre the size of the Coliseum. When the giant sliding windows of the set shifted, the creakiness – which was, I suspect, unintentional – served only to crank up the atmosphere, to which Garry Walker's taut conducting was an ideal musical counterpart.

George Longworth (Miles*) / Rebecca Evans (Governess)George Longworth (Miles (press night performance)) / Rebecca Evans (Governess)

Rebecca Evans sang beautifully as the Governess, though her diction was far from clear; the honeyed sweetness of her voice and liveliness of her demeanour made for a particularly unsettling contrast with the children's poised coldness and the monochrome darkness of the set and costumes. Timothy Robinson's Quint, was lean, hungry, feeding off Miles's energy; Cheryl Barker's Miss Jessel used the intensity of her presence to suck the warmth out of the atmosphere whenever she was on stage. Singing her first Mrs Grose, Ann Murray's characterisation and diction were excellent even if her mezzo really is very shrill on top these days. The two children – the excellent second-cast Miles, 12-year-old Jacob Moriarty, and Guildhall undergraduate Nazan Fikret as a Flora in fairly advanced adolescence – were really first-class.

The result was an evening which left a chill in the air and, for the right reasons, a nasty taste in the mouth.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

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