Monday, 3 December 2007

The Turn of the Screw - ENO

Turn of the Screw by Britten
Eno @ The Colliseum

26th November – 6th December
Directed by David McVicar
Conductor Gary Walker
Review by Mark Valencia

Britten is English National Opera’s lucky composer, with ne’er a flop in their recent history. The St Martin’s Lane house is able to summon up benchmark productions of Grimes, Budd, Lucretia and the Dream, all joined mere months ago by an inspired Death in Venice from Deborah Warner. And here comes Suffolk’s favourite son once again to lift the company’s flagging fortunes with another winner. David McVicar’s atmospheric and troubling staging of The Turn of the Screw started life at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersberg, so it arrives tried, tested and a safe bet. The powers that be at Fortress Coliseum must be relieved to see something this classy on their beleaguered stage.

In fact their earlier Screw was already pretty good, but McVicar’s wholly tangible vision of Bly inhabits a different world from Jonathan Miller’s screens and projections (last seen in 1993). A strong sense of period underpins Tanya McCallin’s semi-abstract setting, and a rocking horse – that potent symbol of Edwardian childhood – is prominent throughout. Only two misjudgements break the spell: some distractingly noisy sliding screens and, crucially, McVicar’s use of six supernumeraries who spend the evening pottering around Bly relocating the furniture, all clad in period costume and all indistinguishable on the dimly lit stage from Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. As a result, when the ghosts do appear they could just as easily have popped onstage to shift a piano or desk into position. We lose all sense of surprise or menace, and the problem is compounded by the fact that the four (living) principal characters really ought to exist in a huis clos of desolation borne of isolation. How else to explain the Governess’s fear of living far removed from her 'own kind'?

The cast is mostly terrific. Timothy Robinson brings a mood of incantation to the Prologue, while his Quint is appallingly seductive. Cheryl Barker ensures that the underwritten role of Miss Jessel makes a strong impression; Ann Murray’s housekeeper has an unaccustomed but wholly appropriate sternness, and Rebecca Evans interprets the Governess as a damaged soul to match her charges, in particular the superbly sung and acted Miles of George Longworth (a role he shares with Jacob Moriarty). Only Nazan Fikret disappoints, in a role she has now outgrown. I was more impressed when I saw her as Flora in Luc Bondy’s production a few years ago, but of course she was a real child then. Now approaching twenty, she should be given time to nurture her vocal development in private; as it is, she alone had me reaching for the surtitles.

Garry Walker makes his ENO début at the head of a variable instrumental ensemble (great strings but some sour double reeds) and chooses audacious tempi that rightly emphasise the unfulfilled voluptuousness of Britten’s score. Has there ever been a more expansive reading of the Governess’s letter scene? It was a glorious piece of romanticisation that Tchaikovsky himself would have envied, and all of a piece with McVicar’s staging. This fine production deserves to come back and haunt us for years to come.

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