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S & H Opera Review

Britten, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ Royal College of Music, Benjamin Britten International Opera School, 22nd November 2003 (ME)

 

Benjamin Britten would have been 90 on the day of this opening performance, and no more fitting tribute than this admirably direct, seamlessly conducted and thrillingly sung production, could possibly be imagined. Revisiting the works of their dedicatee two years after their huge success with the school’s inaugural production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ the RCM also returned to the same producer, John Copley, and the same conductor, Michael Rosewell, directing a group of young singers of quite astonishing promise – two years ago, I said that every opera house would soon want the likes of Jonathan Lemalu, and they do: it would not surprise me in the least if the same were to be true of some of the present cast.

‘The ceremony of Innocence is drowned’ wrote Yeats in ‘The Second Coming,’ and this, according to the librettist Myfanwy Piper, epitomised Henry James’s original story to the extent that Britten made it the theme of the whole work: John Copley’s production stresses this element of the destruction of innocence and makes it more telling than any concentration on the merely supernatural could possibly be. Based on a striking palette of grey, white and black with the tiniest splashes of muted colour, Colin Peters’s set designs provided an ideal framework for Copley’s interpretation of the ruin of both purity and ingenuousness – it is not only the children whose innocence is wrecked, but that of the Governess, whose own imagination and sense of guilt are at the centre of the work.

The ‘Innocents’ here were superbly taken by the fourteen year old David Stark, and the twenty year old Sophie Bevan: Miles is not an easy role, but David sang and acted it with just the right mixture of knowingness and guile, and Sophie was a very convincing Flora – she has a lovely, pliant timbre, her phrasing and stage presence are already very polished for a second year student, and I shall follow her career with interest. Mrs Grose was played by Wendy Dawn Thompson, a strikingly contrasting role to her last for this company, that of Second Lady in ‘Die Zauberflöte’ and she sang with confidence but was a little too cosy for this enigmatic character – or perhaps that is how the director feels this role should be played, but I have doubts, since she must surely know what is going on. The Governess was taken by Ana James, another singer displaying her versatility – she was a wonderful Queen of the Night last season – and she, like Wendy, gave a sympathetic, very well sung performance if a little on the ‘comfortable’ side for the part. The touching quality of her character’s ingenuousness was made very clear in the first scenes, and she did show a gradual loss of that essential innocence, but I feel that this role needs more of a sense of hysteria and obsession than she was able to give at this time.

The roles of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are complex ones even for experienced singers, and any London performers taking them on have to face the inevitable comparison with the tenor and soprano who most recently sang the roles at Covent Garden, but it is surely a measure of the level at which the Britten School is operating, that one can even consider student singers worthy of such comparisons. And worthy they certainly were: Thomas Walker had already impressed me with a striking Second priest / First Armed Man in ‘Zauberflöte’ and a very distinctive tenor solo in Bach’s ‘Weinachtsoratorium’ last season, and his first major role here did not disappoint. Superbly directed by Copley, his silent appearances were wonderfully malevolent and his utterances gripping throughout – ‘I am the secret life that stirs / When the candle is out’ was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and his persuasive repetitions of ‘Take it! Take it’ as Miles hesitated to steal the letter may not have been as chilling as Bostridge’s but the tone still held plenty of spectral authority. A commanding performance from this 24 year old of whom I expect to hear a great deal more at the highest level. He will repeat his role on the 26th – on 24th and 27th the part will be taken by Nicholas Watts, who presented a sweetly sung Prologue on this occasion.

Sarah-Jane Davies is well known to RCM audiences, especially notable for her finely sing Pamina and her vivid Agrippina: her Miss Jessel is the best performance yet from this assured singer who is at present engaged with the ENO Young Singers Programme as well as studying for her Postgraduate diploma in Advanced Opera Studies. Copley knew just how to use this rather Junoesque young lady on stage, making everything he could of her classical bearing and commanding manner: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Miss Jessel who more exactly resembled the description given by Henry James in the original story; ‘Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me… Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers.’ Her appearance in the Lake scene was quite terrifying, as was her powerful presence in the bedroom, and her singing throughout was spare, dignified and engrossing.

Michael Rosewell united the varying strands of the small orchestra with great subtlety and intelligence: from the foreboding of the ride in the first scene to the final baleful chords, Britten’s music has seldom sounded so richly characterized and so humane – even the children’s mocking rhymes were presented with such directness that it was unnecessary to cringe, as I admit I sometimes do. The strength of the playing was especially evident in such moments as the insinuating music for the Celeste which characterizes Quint’s utterances, and the minutely detailed evocations of the surrounding scenes as provided by the strings.

Only four performances in all of this chamber piece which more than justifies the praise heaped upon the Britten school – if you’re reading this on Tuesday, you’ll just catch Wednesday’s or Thursday’s – don’t miss it.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

Photo details are -
Thomas Walker (Peter Quint)
Sarah- Jane Davies (Miss Jessel)
David Stark (Miles)
Sophie Bevan (Flora)

Photographer Chris Christodoulou

 


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