Benjamin Britten’s operas are often deeply disturbing and psychologically wrought, with confronting themes fused with a music that does so much more than underpin the intense drama unfolding on stage.
We don’t often see Britten’s operas here. Hence it was with great expectation we waited for The Turn of the Screw, arguably Britten’s most arcane and ambiguous work.
"The story follows a young governess as she arrives at a remote country house to care for two children, with only written instructions from an absent guardian who advises that he is not to be contacted. Things only get stranger.
What is real and what are the imagining of a troubled mind? The novel doesn’t make it clear, and Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper leave it equally ambiguous in the opera. This is a narrative just ambivalent enough for us to project upon it our own fears." - NZ Opera
This production by Thomas de Mallet Burgess mixed the traditional 1840s Victorian English setting with a futuristic set with great perspective, designed by Tracy Grant Lord.
The children Miles and Flora, excellently played and sung by Alexandros Swallow and Alexa Harwood, were by turns menacing and manipulative, easily confounding the beautifully sung and sympathetic Governess of Anna Leese. However, I didn’t get the overwhelming feeling that in her infatuation, she was trying to save Miles from the knowledge and experience that the ghost Quint was tempting him with.
Patricia Wright as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, was suitably fussy, but incomprehensible at times. The ghosts, Jared Holt and Madeleine Pierard, created an ambiguous and corrupting atmosphere and their “Ceremony of Innocence” scene was a tour-de-force. Both have excellent text and are strong personalities on stage and in many respects they inadvertently took control of the stage where a different lighting state would have helped the other characters.
With such an ambiguous and complicated story it is essential to hear the text: unfortunately some singers are better than others at their diction, and for sopranos it is difficult to have clarity the higher you sing. Surtitles would have been desirable – while the singing of all the artists was uniformly excellent, many of the audience around me could not hear the text, and combined with the placement of the orchestra in the wings, we missed essential parts of the story.
The orchestra is hugely important to the whole opera, acting like an extra character: I’m sure they did a good job with their conductor Holly Mathieson, but the sound was disappointingly muffled and did not have the immediacy of communication we know and expect from Britten’s music.
If the orchestra had been in the pit it would have perhaps have allowed the lighting designer, Matthew Marshall, more room to create differentiated ‘rooms’ in the house and offered more options for dealing with the ghosts.
The performance was an interesting night in the theatre and was a tribute to New Zealand Opera’s courage, but did not highlight the sexual ambiguity and the threat of the supernatural that is inherent in Myfanwy Piper’s libretto of Henry James’s story.
The Turn of the Screw is on at the Wellington Opera House, 3 and 5 October, and at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland on 18, 20 and 23 October.