Saturday 5 July 2014

Scarily spooky: The Turn of the Screw

Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Britten Turn of the Screw; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jul 01 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Highly atmospheric new production of Britten's ghost story opera

'The Turn of the Screw' in the atmospheric setting of Holland Park was a real treat. This new production by Annilese Miskimmon was the Opera Holland Parks first foray into the music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), but the performers, and the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Steuart Bedford, brought this ghostly tale to life.

The edges of the crumbling stonework of the 17th century Holland House could just be seen behind the staging adding a gothic touch to the late Victorian/ Edwardian setting. An effect enhanced by the crows and peacocks in the park calling out almost on cue. Here there could be evil and madness hidden away.

Henry James (1843-1916) wrote the novella 'The turn of the screw' in the late 19th century (first published in 1898), substantially revising it throughout the remainder of his life. Collaborating with his friend Myfanwy Piper, who wrote the libretto, Britten used this story to create a short, simple, but dramatic opera for the Teatro La Fenice, Venice (premiered in 1954).

Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Using a mixture of serial and classical techniques, including the famous 'screw' motif (a 12 tone phrase based around three circles of fifths) Britten's music drifts around different moods, from innocent and pastoral happiness, to threatening and disturbing, as the governess becomes convinced that the ghosts are real and malevolent.

This opera is about drama, not flights of musical fancy. But in order for this to happen the music needs to be right – and in this performance the music and singing were faultless. Conductor Steuart Bedford has a long standing relationship with the music of Britten – he conducted the world premiere of Death in Venice in 1973 and has been the Director of the Aldeburgh Festival since 1989.

The small orchestra packed a real punch – from airy solos to full ensemble sound. Britten knew what he was doing – by carefully choosing which instruments were in the ensemble, and by keeping the instrumentation changing, he insured that there was no loss of interest. Early interludes predicted later horrors, and very close dischords were used when Quint's death was first discussed. Later on English folk tune-like melodies provided the sugar of an idyllic school room – but yet the accompaniment insured that nursery rhymes took on a sinister edge when sung by the children.

Ellie Laugharne - Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Ellie Laugharne - Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Ellie Laugharne was fantastic as the governess: all bright eyed innocence, just a little in love with her mysterious employer; becoming slowly terrified of the ghosts and the children, while wanting to save them. Diana Montague as Mrs Grose was a more than able stand in for Anne Mason who was unable to sing. The chemistry between the two ladies – left alone in the house to fend for themselves was heartfelt.

Miss Jessel, performed by Elin Pritchard, was a sexually aware manipulator - standing right in front of, and far too close to, the governess (who of course could not see her) and Brenden Gunnell was a nasty piece of work as Peter Quint. Gunnell spent much of his time of the tops of the scenery and climbing around the furniture showing how he dominated the household physically as well as psychologically. Pritchard waving her doll's hand at Flora was a delightfully horrible touch.

The clever use of minimal staging did not always work. I liked the cupboards with glass doors becoming transformed with lighting into train carriages or windows. But although the school room with its blackboard (through which Quint climbed via a chalk-drawn door) and chemistry set were very evocative, using the chairs as a landing stage for the lake was not obvious enough for those who did not already know the story.

Also the interruptions of 'normality' – the more modern school room where the narrator Robin Tritschler was teaching – during the musical interludes were a little confusing until you got used to them. Especially when the music was trying to push forward a disquieting atmosphere. That said the acting of Tritschler and his gaggle of boys did contrast Miles and Flora's behaviour with that of normal children – and if you are going to have different actors playing Quint and the narrator you may as well make the most of them.

Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas - Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas - Turn of the Screw - Opera Holland Park
Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas, who played Miles and Flora, hit just the right combination of disturbed innocence. A recent (2011) graduate from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, last year Lomas played the children's role in Perfect American at the ENO and shows every indication of going from strength to strength. Dominic, although still at school, is also not new to opera, having sung for both the ENO and ROH. He was a complete performer - his clear voice audible even during ensemble singing.

This little ghost story is one of my favourite operas and even with my high expectations the Opera Holland Park company did not disappoint.

'The Turn of the Screw' runs throughout June to be followed by 'Norma' by Vincenzo Bellini, 'Adriana Lecouvreur' by Francesco Cilea (both of which are new productions), and a revisiting of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' by Will Todd.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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