For some years I had thought that I didn’t like Britten. However, I did realise that, to be fair, I hadn’t either heard or performed very much of his music, and that perhaps if I heard more, or spent some time studying or immersing myself in it, I might learn to better appreciate it. Well, I did and I have. Last month I was performing in an (amateur) production of two of Britten’s Church Parables; the music is difficult both technically and as an ensemble, so I had to spend quite a lot of time both practicing my part and listening to a recording to see how the parts all fitted together. Throughout this period, the music really grew on me and I came to love it.
The only whole Britten opera I had heard prior to this, Death in Venice, I found pleasant enough, musically, but it didn’t really grab me. Neither did the short excerpts that I had heard from Peter Grimes and Billy Budd (although, as a rule, I tend to dislike short excerpts of things anyway). This performance of The Turn of the Screw was entirely different, though. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to having performed some Britten works which were not dissimilar in style, to the fact that I just liked the compositional style of this work better than the later Death in Venice, or to the fact that it was a particularly good production. Not that it matters…
Anyway, having rambled blog-style for a minute or so, I’ll actually describe the performance. The set was quite simple in style, but atmospheric and elegant. There was a dark wooden floor strewn with dead leaves at the front, and tall translucent screens which slid in and out for scene changes, which consisted of the rearrangement of some changing items of dark Victorian-style furniture (iron bedsteads, chairs, desks, piano, paraffin lamps, etc.). This worked well for all indoor scenes, and for outdoors, a glassy black lake was visible at the back. All members of the cast were dressed in dour black and white, looking superficially quite uniform, but very different in attitude and movement. The real people were full of nervous energy, bursting onto stage and often running off, while lighting and the screens were used very effectively to help the ghosts appear first as silhouettes, then gliding in and out from the shadows, becoming more corporeal as the story progressed.
Britten’s use of chamber orchestra is particularly effective. Despite so few players in such a large venue, the sound was powerful, even the many times when only one or two instruments were playing. Some of the most lovely music, in fact, is the set of instrumental variational interludes that separate the acted scenes. The writing for woodwind and for percussion is particularly inspired, and although all musicians were excellent (members of the ENO orchestra under Garry Walker), William Lockhart (timpani / percussion), Andrew Caulthery (oboe / cor anglais), and Jaime Martin (flute / piccolo / alto flute) deserve special mention. Martin was quite capable of filling the theatre with sound all by himself in the many solo flute passages, employed a wide palette of tone colours and note attacks on all three instruments, and made very effective use of varied vibrato, on occasions cutting down it down to a completely cold sound.
Both singing and acting were uniformly excellent. Timothy Robinson delivered the opening prologue as well as playing Peter Quint, and did so with a warm, flexible, seemingly-effortless sound. Although his character was the most straightforwardly malevolent, the part allowed him the scope to sound sometimes vitriolic, other times sinuously seductive. Cheryl Barker (Miss Jessel) I have heard several times at the ENO; this was a smaller role, but one requiring great judgment to bring off with the right mixture of pathos and vindictiveness. The others I do not think I have heard before, but hope to in the future. Rebecca Evans was a completely gripping Governess, with a pure, clear voice with floating high notes, and managing to make sense of a conflicted character, particularly in her confused reactions to some of the boy Miles’ unnervingly adult behaviour. Ann Murray, as Mrs Grose, was in some ways the central pillar of the piece, doing her best to remain steady and hold the household together, despite her feelings of guilt about past inaction and impotence. Murray and Evans sounded particularly good when singing together.
Although the history of abuse that Miles and Flora have suffered is barely mentioned explicitly in the text, it is made clear through their uneasy relationships with the adults and to some extent, with eachother. I do not remember the last time I had a good word to say about children on stage – in general they are irritating and distracting to see and unpleasant to hear – but Jacob Moriarty was excellent as Miles, unnerving from the start but truly chilling as Quint starts to control him, and his manner towards the Governess changes. I don’t know how old Nazan Murray is, but she was certainly able to hold her own as Flora, with a strong and accurate, yet still convincingly child-like tone. Flora is a particularly interesting character, with her inner conflict of fearing the Jessel spirit, yet being so desperate for some attention (which she missing, while the other adults all dote on Miles) that she almost welcomes her advances. Being confronted with these thoughts is shocking disturbing for the audience, as it should be. The slowly-revealed horror and mounting tension were very effective; however, I can’t help thinking that it should be performed as a one-acter. It seemed inappropriate, halfway through the story, to have the lights go on, clap clap clap, jolly good aren’t they, off to the bar for a nice glass of wine. On the other hand, perhaps the work would be too tense without the break?