The Richmond Theatre is in many
ways the perfect setting for Britten’s Henry James-inspired ghost story.
Intimate in scale, Britten’s chosen accompanying group (a small instrumental
ensemble of 13 players) seems entirely appropriate. This intimacy aids
and abets the dark undertones of the opera – not just a ghost story,
but an exploration of power and forbidden sexuality. In fact, before
one even enters the theatre, one has been unsettled by a reproduction
in the programme of Edvard Munch’s ‘Puberty’(1894). The scene is set
for a disturbing evening.
The staging is appropriately dominated
by black. At the very opening, the only non-black is the brown of the
piano; the stage given plenty of opportunity for half-lights. The only
immediate problem was the acoustic, which was very dry. The singers
had to try hard to project, although it was not quite as distracting
as the recent ENO/Barbican Theatre experience.
ETO is a company made up of young
talent, and so Quint (Christopher Steele, who also performs the Prologue)
was strikingly youthful. His voice was more of an English chorister’s,
complete with said chorister’s correct diction. An old piano accompanied.
The entrance of the Governess, here sung by Emma Gane, confirmed impressions.
Gane has performed this part at the Britten-Pears School and possesses
a light and pleasing voice. The real problem of casting came with the
entrance of Mrs Grose (mezzo Catherine Bates) who was clearly in a different
league. Oozing confidence, there was no doubting her depth of feeling
at her Quint-inspired outburst of ‘Dear Lord’. Right from her first
appearance, Bates was in control. In contrast, Gane eased her way into
the Governess’ shoes. Her Act Two successfully brought out the Governess’
desperation, even madness, in a way that made her delivery of the line,
‘I am alone’ remarkably poignant. The scene with Miss Jessel was rightly
climactic, the instrumental ensemble supporting with luminous harmonies.
Christopher Steel’s Quint remained
an adequate assumption throughout. Mezzo Christine Griffith’s Miss Jessel
was altogether a deeper portrayal. Griffiths has a powerful presence
and a voice to match. She has already sung Orlovsky (Fledermaus)
with WNO – she should be watched.
Finally, the children. Britten
demands a lot from his young singers and it was good that both delivered.
Except that the Flora, Rebekah Coffey, was clearly too old, her voice
just too mature to convince. In fairness, she did try to rein her voice
in, but the natural temptation to let her voice blossom was sometimes
too much. The star of the show, then, was William Sheldon’s Miles (who,
it turns out, can also mime playing the piano well). If the repetitions
of ‘Malo’ in Act 1 were rather thin, he too grew in stature, his innocence
profoundly touching, his death one to linger in the memory. The close
of he opera was enormously moving. The central message of the opera,
the Yeats-inspired, ‘The Ceremony of Innocence is drowned’, made its
point most powerfully.