Sunday 17 March 2019

One last show: Bury Court Opera's final performance ever presented Britten's The Turn of the Screw in a production vividly conceived to highlight the venue's distinctive qualities

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Andrew Dickinson, Hugh Hetherington - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Andrew Dickinson, Hugh Hetherington - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Britten The Turn of the Screw; Alison Rose, Andrew Dickinson, Daisy Brown, Emily Gray, Jennifer Clark, Harry Hetherington, dir: Ella Marchment, Chroma Ensemble, cond: Paul Wingfield; Bury Court Opera  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★½)
A vividly theatrical and cohesively conceived account of Britten's chamber opera, with compelling performances from the young cast

Last night (16 March 2019) was the last ever performance of Bury Court Opera, the final performance of a new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw, the company's second production of a season which started with the premiere of Noah Mosley's Aurora [see my review].

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Hugh Hetherington, Alison Rose - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Hugh Hetherington, Alison Rose
Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Britten's The Turn of the Screw was directed by Ella Marchment and designed by Holly Pigott, with Alison Rose as the Governess, Andrew Dickinson as Peter Quint and the Prologue, Daisy Brown as Miss Jessel, Emily Gray as Mrs Grose, Jennifer Clark as Flora and Harry Hetherington as Miles. Paul Wingfield conducted the Chroma Ensemble.

Britten's opera might be quite a compact piece, using just six singers and 13 instrumentalists, but its scenic demands are quite complex as Myfanwy Piper's scenario moves in an almost filmic way between locations in and around Bly, and this movement is important to the plot. The opera is hardly one which responds to being played in a single location, and Holly Pigott's imaginative setting for Ella Marchment's production gave us everything the opera needed despite the limited facilities of the Bury Court Opera stage (for the rest of the year the venue is a barn used for weddings).

The big advantage was the dark, claustrophobic nature of the essential space, and by using the stepped stage, and various traps we had a series of evocative settings, emphasised by Ben Pickersgill's dramatic lighting, all darkness and light, full of hidden corners and wonderfully theatrical. Central to Marchment's concept for the production was the area in the upper rear stage, separated from the rest by a translucent black curtain which formed the ghosts' domain, a parallel Bly. Marchment and Pigott set the opera in the correct period, and in the programme book Marchment argued cohesively that the complex psychology of the drama only really works in the Victorian setting with its restriction and propriety.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Jennifer Clark - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Jennifer Clark - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Whilst Marchment had taken the decision that the ghosts are real, not just figments of the Governess' imagination, and that the Governess is not mad, the playing out of the drama left much to the audience's own imagination. Was the Governess right in her actions, who was responsible for Miles' death. It was a fascinating solution to the uncertainty question which is at the core of the opera.

Ella Marchment is a young director whose work I have seen regularly over the years, notably with her own company the Helios Ensemble (and in fact she directed my opera The Genesis of Frankenstein with them). Yet this was the first time I had seen her directing a piece of core repertoire (an example of the imagination which Bury Court Opera always applied to cast and creatives), and it was heartening to find such a cohesive and intelligent production, which did not seek to re-invent the drama but to present it in a slightly different light.

Alison Rose made a compelling Governess, young and sympathetic, a little naive and very keen to do the right thing, she never questioned the restrictions placed upon her by society and by the children's guardian. The Governess' central dilemma was not so much whether the ghosts' existed, but how to deal with them, how to cope with the sheer seductiveness that Quint (Andrew Dickinson) and Miss Jessel (Daisy Brown) presented. And Rose made us see the entirety of the Governess' journey, the road to Hell paved with good intentions. It helped that Rose created such a sympathetic and engaging persona for the Governess, we liked her and wanted her to be right, yet she fails.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Daisy Brown, Andrew Dickinson - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Daisy Brown, Andrew Dickinson
Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Also key to the production was the Governess' relationships within Bly, so that Emily Gray's Mrs Grose was a more definite character, one who wanted a stronger relationship with the Governess who was her social superior, something which removes the sense of balance from her observing the Governess' actions. Unlike some productions that I have seen, the relation between Rose's Governess and Harry Hetherington's Miles was hardly sexual, instead Miles challenges to the Governess seemed to reflect his role as Quint's proxy.

Emily Gray was an immensely sympathetic Mrs Grose, younger than is usually cast she was clearly not in the same social class as the Governess, and Gray made Mrs Grose's need for approbation and friendship of the Governess key to the character. It was a riveting performance which helped to redefine the opera. Harry Hetherington and Jennifer Clark made a fine pair of children, acting up yet never quite completely evil, you were kept guessing. Hetherington showed himself a stage natural, moving with the control of a dancer, his singing was true though perhaps it did not always quite fill the theatrical space. He and Clark (a young professional soprano) developed a really convincing relationship.

The ghosts were wonderfully realised, fully formed and highly seductive, presenting the idea of another world parallel to the real Bly. Andrew Dickinson was a mesmerising Prologue, here cast as an entertainer telling us the story (returning at the end for a silent epilogue), and he metamorphosed into an eerie and rather threatening Quint, but a not unsexy one. Daisy Brown's Miss Jessel looked as if she might have turned into Miss Havisham in later life, and Brown brought this slightly demented edge to her performance. The 'ceremony of innocence' was vivid and threatening, the ghosts breaking through into the real world.

Placed at the side of the stage, the Chroma Ensemble were perhaps not ideally situated yet conductor Paul Wingfield kept everything together finely and the important instrumental passages were as vividly projected as the rest of the staging.

Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Daisy Brown - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Britten: The Turn of the Screw - Daisy Brown - Bury Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This was a highly theatrical production, which made the most of the opportunities offered by the barn and minimised the stage limitations, and Marchment drew some finely theatrical and very compelling performances from her young cast. This was a terrific production, one that any company could be proud of, demonstrating for one last time the company's skill in selecting young artists and giving them opportunities. Here everyone seized the moment, and at should, this final performance left the audience wanting more.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Almost music theatre: song cycles by Dominick Argento and Robert Schumann from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Highly engaging: revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute from Simon McBurney, ENO & Complicité (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Magnificent original: Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake restored in a superb performance from Vladimir Jurowski on Pentatone (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Intimate conversations: the young Jubilee Quartet in three quartets spanning 20 years of Haydn's maturity (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting drama: Peter Konwitschny's production of Halevy's La Juive at Opera Vlaanderen (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Claustrophobic & atmospheric: Verdi's Macbeth from English Touring Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • Letting the music speak for itself: Mozart's Idomeneo from English Touring Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Cadogan Hall debut: the Gesualdo Six in a programme of Renaissance and Contemporary (★★★★) - concert review
  • The Children's Hour: intimate and delightfully casual, Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann at Pizza Express Live - concert review
  • Haydn's The Seasons from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Virtuosity and intimacy: Flauguissimo duo's A Salon Opera  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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