Turn of the Screw is an opera which I admire rather than love. Partly it is my lack of sympathy with the ghost story form, but more importantly I have always found the governess to be faintly annoying. Her actions make me impatient and I long to give her a good shake and knock some common sense into her.
That said, there was much to admire in ENO's new production, which we saw on Saturday 3rd December. Borrowed from the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, it is the first of two David McVicar borrowings this season. (The second is the Scottish Opera Der Rosenkavalier.)
Turn of the Screw is problematic in large opera houses, it uses only 13 instruments in the ensemble and is very much a chamber piece. The opera works best in small spaces, Grange Park Opera's production made quite an impression. McVicar and his designer, Tanya McCallin, do not attempt to make the acting space smaller. Instead it is opened up to its fullest to create the dark lowering spaces of Bly. Only occasionally does the dark backdrop open to let light flood in. These dark spaces are hauntingly lit by Adam Silverman's lighting scheme.
The stage is populated by odd items of Victorian furniture (beds, a piano, etc.) which are moved about by the servants. McVicar's Bly is a place full of people, servants coming and going. In a sense this only serves to highlight the Governess's isolation as the only person of her class in the house. This is further concentrated by the way the characters function in the wide open spaces, the space serving to concentrate the attention on the singer.
As the Governess, Rebecca Evans was truly impressive. Her rich toned voice filled the auditorium and she made every word tell, her diction rendering the surtitles redundant. She was ably supported by Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose. Usually this characters is played by a well-upholstered matron. But Murray created an angular, anxious maiden Aunt. The role suited her voice rather better than her previous excursion her, when she sang the Duchess of Plaza Toro.
The children, played by Jacob Moriarty and Nazan Fikret, were scarily impressive. Moriarty is very slight but sang with a true voice and was eerily controlled. The moment, at the end of Act 1, when he kisses the Governess was quite disturbing. Though McVicar did not play down the sexual charge between Miles and Quint, this sexualisation of the relationship between Miles and the Governess was quite fascinating.
The ghosts themselves were impressively played by Timothy Robinson and Cheryl Barker. Another of McVicar's innovations was to have Quint lifting Miss Jessel out of her grave, a very striking image coming so quickly after the children bury the doll. Robinson did not completely dispel the ghost of Peter Pears but his assumption of the role was perfectly complete. Barker surprised me at how her rich and dramatic voice was made to suit Miss Jessel perfectly.
The ensemble, under Garry Walker, played superbly and also managed to fill the auditorium. Never once did the ensemble sound undernourished.
This was an impressive and moving production; McVicar was in subtle and understated mode and there were none of the showy tricks which have found their way into his recent Handel productions and his Covent Garden Rigoletto. I hope that he is asked to do more Britten in London.