Wednesday 1 January 2014

Turn of the Screw

Britten - Turn of the Screw: LSO00749
Britten's Turn of the Screw is in some ways a reaction against the large scale operas he wrote in the early 1950's (Billy Budd and Gloriana). Working with a congenial new collaborator as librettist, Myfanwy Piper, Britten created a work which exists in balance. It balances tight formal structure with extremes of emotion, the physical reality of the governess and Bly with the seductive nebulousness of the ghosts, the innocence, (sexual) knowingness and cunning in Miles. Written for the English Opera Group using small forces (17 instrumentalists and 6 singers), the work is strong enough to expand to fill a large theatre like the London Coliseum.

This new set on the LSO Live label captures the concert performances given by the London Symphony Orchestra in April 2013 at London's Barbican Centre. Members of the LSO are conducted by Richard Farnes (musical director of Opera North) with Andrew Kennedy as the prologue and Peter Quint, Sally Mathews at the Governess, Michael Clayton-Joly as Miles, Lucy Hall as Flora, Catherine Wyn-Roger as Mrs Grose and Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel.

Listening to the opera on CD is very different to seeing it in the theatre. Without any visual stimulus, the CD performance brings the music of the instrumental variations into closer focus. Britten follows each scene with an orchestral variation, 15 in all. In these instrumental variations he explores the opera musically and underpins the drama of the piece. Though the sheer presence of the ghosts on stage is a step away from Henry James, Britten's musical commentary and development places them in a separate space. The orchestra becomes another character, like a narrator, and after each scene we eagerly await the orchestral variation to hear what the commentator thinks.

Farnes makes the most of this and the orchestral performance on this set is vivid and involving. It hardly sounds live at all, except for the sheer edge of the seat involvement which could only come from a live performance.

So it is all the more disappointing that the recording has not caught the voices anything like so well. Diction is muddy, even a singer like Catherine Wyn-Rogers is made to sound as if mumbling at times and Andrew Kennedy is the only adult singer who manages to cut through, but only to a certain extent.

Sally Matthews is a warm, feminine Governess with a motherly practical streak and quite a firm line. Moments such as 'I shall say nothing', when she learns of Miles being expelled from school or her dismissal of Miss Jessell in the school room as a 'terrible woman' reveal a streak of steel in Matthews performance. A fearfully polite, well brought up young woman, Matthews' Governess is not as naive as some. I suspect that Matthews turned in a very fine performance as the Governess, but on disc I spent rather too much time straining to hear what the words are. Performing Britten is about text as much as music and this simply is not coming over in the recording. That said, as the opera develops, Matthews performance grows in strength and the closing scenes are powerfully intense.

Matthews is well supported by the Mrs Grose of Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Nicer, less the battle-axe than some she is warmly sympathetic.

Andrew Kennedy is vividly brilliant voiced as Peter Quint, bringing a great clarity of line to the role. There is a terrific crackle between him and Clayton-Joly in Peter Quint's scenes with Miles, raising the dramatic temperature significantly. But I found Kennedy rather too present as Quint, too vividly eager and not quite silkily seductive enough in tone, though there are moments of great beauty. Katherine Broderick is a strong, rather earthy Miss Jessell, with her richer darker tones contrasting nicely with Matthews's.

Michael Clayton-Joly is not as sexual as some in the role of Miles. He sings with a bright, focussed tone and come over as maliciously cool. He nicely catches the edge between cunning and innocence. He and Lucy Hall's Flora rather run rings round Matthews's Governess, and such scenes as the one in the schoolroom are gripping.

Richard Farnes and the London Symphony Orchestra make the orchestral contribution one of the best things about this disc. They don't quite make the set ideal, but their contribution is notable, highly vivid and make the set well worth catching.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 (1954) [110.32]
Prologue / Peter Quint - Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Governess - Sally Matthews (soprano)
Miles - Michael Clayton-Joly (treble)
Flora - Lucy Hall (soprano)
Mrs Grose - Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Miss Jessel - Katherine Broderick (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra 
Richard Farnes (conductor)
LSO Live LSO0749

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