Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Image courtesy of Opera Holland Park
06 Jul 2014

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘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.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above image courtesy of Opera Holland Park

 

Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications’. So wrote Henry James in the Preface to his short story, The Turn of the Screw.

James’s novella is characterised by the author’s characteristic literary evasion: the ‘gaps’ in the narrative, which frustrate and provoke the reader, are an invitation to musical intimation and allusion — and the suggestiveness of Britten’s score perfectly complements, even enhances, the author’s tantalising elusiveness. By contrast, Annilese Miskimmon’s new production for Opera Holland Park — the first Britten opera to be performed at OHP — makes the ‘evil’ explicit and specific, and, paradoxically, adds further conjectures and inferences.

One might think that the ruined walls of Holland House which form the backdrop for the stage would offer copious opportunities to evoke the shadowy recesses of James’ country mansion, Bly — a repository of psychological and psychic instability. However, Miskimmon and her designer Leslie Travers choose to construct a school-room to house the entire action of the opera, picking up on James’s insinuations that Miles’ undisclosed ‘crime’ — which sees him expelled from school and which confirms that he is ‘bad’ — is that he has contaminated or corrupted his school fellows, presumably by divulging the sexual knowledge he has been taught be Quint. During Act 1, Miles draws a rectangle in one corner of the blackboard; in Act 2 this becomes the door through which Quint enters. In this way, Miskimmon takes an inference and escalates it into the production’s central rationale.

So, we enter a classroom — presumably Bly has been converted into a boys’ preparatory school in the years following the tragedy depicted in the opera — spanned by an elongated blackboard along one angled wall and a piano nestled at the other end, with school-boys’ desks and a series of black panels suggesting a library in between. In Act 2 the panels swivel and form slanting screens casting shadows from which Peter Quint and Miss Jessel can surreptitiously emerge and fade.

The Prologue is sung by a laboratory-coat attired teacher (Robin Tritschler). As Tritschler ends eloquent, self-composed introduction to the ‘curious story’ which we will witness, a class of schoolboys in shorts and caps scamper to their desks. During the score’s instrumental interludes — which mark the passing of time and convey the ‘gaps’ in the novella — the teacher and his young charges will re-appear, sometimes serving a practical purpose as stage hands, at other times enforcing Miskimmon’s central idea about the ubiquitous threat to ‘innocence’. As they are shepherded through the school rooms, one boy lingers, engaging in an ambiguous and sinister gaze with his schoolmaster — we are encouraged to ask the Jamesian question, ‘who has corrupted whom and what is the nature of that corruption?’

In the original production, Peter Pears took the role of both the Narrator and Peter Quint; by assigning two roles to one singer, Britten increased James’s ambiguity, but here a different singer is cast as Peter Quint, and Miskimmon’s parallels between Bly past and present are more overt. Similarly, Britten’s instrumental variations on the ‘screw theme’ which is presented at the end of the Prologue create accumulating intensity through ever-changing permutations and elaboration. But here — while conductor Steuart Bedford’s appreciation of the musico-dramatic structure is deeply insightful and the rich array of affecting instrumental timbres that he coaxes from players from the City of London Sinfonia astonishingly detailed — the same visual image is repeated as the musical variations progress, growing in emphasis with each repetition.

Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is imaginative at times: in the opening scene, the black wall panels are made translucent and through them we see the Governess travelling to Bly, cleverly creating a sense of physical distance and of her isolation. Similarly, the shapeless spaces beyond the panels form dark recesses in which hints of Quint’s menacing form can be glimpsed. But, although performances start at 8pm, presumably to take advantage of the fall from twilight into night, there was little sense of nocturnal enchantment. In Scene 8 ‘Night’, when Quint makes his seductive appeal to Miles, a cobalt glow infused the set but it did not match the unearthly beauty and enigmatic enticements of Britten’s instrumental colours, and Quint’s very obvious position atop the panels was too blatant, lacking mystery.

The singular set posed other problems, mostly relating to the fact that there was no opportunity to juxtapose the suffocating interiors which are the Governess’s domain at Bly with the excitement and expanse of the world beyond the mansion’s walls into which Quint lures Miles. So, when the Governess takes young Flora down to the lake which the former governess, Miss Jessel, spectrally inhabits, the schoolmaster’s desk must do service for the ghostly waters while Flora clutches her doll standing upon a shore formed by a line of chairs; when she identifies the waters as the ‘Dead Sea’, she is naming not the dark depths across which she, we guess, communes with Miss Jessel, but rather identifying a geographical location on a map pulled down by the schoolmaster to cover the blackboard. (It’s interesting to recall that originally Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper planned to name the opera, ‘The Tower and the Lake’ — a title latent with Freudian overtones).

There are some neat directorial touches. Miss Jessel is first seen writhing on the master’s desk, and it is upon this desk that Miles dies. Tritschler’s red hair becomes a powerful visual symbol, as both Miles and Flora share his auburn colouring, perhaps suggesting shared lineage, and recalling James’s scandalous, red-headed Quint.

But, overall I lamented that the juxtaposition between repression and freedom was neglected in favour of a narrative of child abuse. For, Quint may be dangerous but he also represents a liberating freedom in the face of the Governess’s stifling over-protectiveness — the latter is just as potent a threat to childhood innocence. In the course of the opera Quint and Governess battle for the right to act as surrogate parent to the children, who have been neglected by their guardian and are inadequately served by the unsophisticated, rather limited Mrs Grose, but Miskimmon offers little sense of the intensity or perilousness of their struggle — although the intended recipient of Miles’ final cry, ‘Peter Quint, you devil!’ is intentionally equivocal. Certainly we are led to deduce that public school is ‘horrid’; but in James and Britten, Miles senses that Governess has other reasons for keeping him at home: ‘Well, I think also, you know, of this queer business of ours … the way you bring me up. And all the rest!’

Miles wants to see more of ‘life’, and we need to see, or at least sense, the opposition of the indoors and out, for it is when Miles roams in the garden at Bly, away from the Governess’s claustrophobic embrace, that he submits to Quint’s enchantment and indulges his own desire for ‘adventure’. And, just as Miskimmon’s Peter Quint is a flesh-and-blood villain, there is little sense also of the Governess’s decline from the strong, confident young professional arriving at Bly to a fragile girl wracked by self-doubt, tormented by her sense of her own culpability.

Thus, while Ellie Laugharne sang with energy and passion, revealing a full, rich soprano, she was unable to convincingly portray the Governess’s growing instability as her fears escalate and inhibit her judgement. There were occasional signs of her emotional deficiencies and weaknesses — a physical stiffening in the warm, honest embrace of Diana Montague’s Mrs Grose, for example. But, her passionate outburst of grief at the close — ‘Ah, Ah don’t leave me now! Ah! Miles! … What have we done between us?’ — was directed away from the child weakening on the desk behind her, and thus did not fully reinforce her awareness of her shared guilt.

The two children were particularly striking — thrillingly engaging both musically and dramatically. Dominic Lynch’s Miles was a wonderful portrait of adolescent precocity and powerful emotional manipulation. His pure soprano was astonishingly penetrating and strong; in his night-time rendezvous with Quint, Lynch’s focused, confident responses to Quint’s alluring cries were a potent sign of his receptiveness to promises of freedom, establishing the intensity of the boy’s communion with Quint. Lynch’s ‘Malo Song’ — still and calm, accompanied by a lovely cor anglais solo — was a wonderful moment of eerie, bewitching quietude. Rosie Lomas was chilling as Flora, incredibly youthful in demeanour, convincingly vicious in her childhood ‘games’ with her younger sibling, her soprano crystalline yet sympathetic.

Diana Montague (replacing Anne Mason who was originally cast in the role but who is now indisposed for the run) was absolutely superb as Mrs Grose; the expanse and depth of her mezzo was utterly redolent of the sweeping maternal embrace which Mrs Grose offers the children, modulated by notes of unease and concern.

As Peter Quint, Brendan Gunnell sang with poised and sure tone, and if the seductive runs of his nocturnal enticement scene lacked a little ‘other-worldliness’ they were smoothly and clearly articulated. Gunnell’s Act 2 Colloquy with Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel was fervidly theatrical; Pritchard brought copious physical and vocal presence to the rather weakly characterised role.

In many ways, this Colloquy — which sets W.B.Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’ — is the linchpin of the opera, yet once again I felt that Miskimmon didn’t find quite the right dramatic note. The ghosts chillingly proclaim that the ‘Ceremony of innocence is drowned’; that is, Yeats and Britten assert, the ceremony of innocence, its rituals, must be ‘drowned’ in order to liberate the individual so that the child can progress to adulthood — though Yeats’ image of apocalyptic agony, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, certainly intimates that breaking conventions may have good or bad results. But, this ambiguity is removed by ubiquitous presence of the science master and his prepubescent charges which shifts the focus onto destruction of innocence itself — and, in so doing, the ‘meaning’ of opera is relocated, or at least some of the shades of ambiguity removed.

Miskimmon takes a focused line and she sticks to it. There are some clever and imaginative touches and she is well served by her cast. But, this Screw would benefit from being more sensitive to the Jamesian silences and to the score’s enigmas and equivocations.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

The Governess, Ellie Laugharne; Peter Quint, Brenden Gunnell; Mrs Grose, Diana Montague; Miss Jessel, Elin Pritchard; The Prologue, Robin Tritschler; Miles, Dominic Lynch; Flora, Rosie Lomas; Director, Annilese Miskimmon; Conductor, Steuart Bedford; Designer, Leslie Travers; Lighting Designer, Mark Jonathan. Opera Holland Park, Tuesday, 1st July 2014.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):