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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 (1955) [104.30]
Eric Barry (tenor) – Peter Quint (Narrator); Emily Workman (soprano) – Governess; Kathleen Reveille (soprano) – Miss Jessel; Diana Montague (mezzo) – Mrs Grose; Rosie Lomas (soprano) – Flora; Dominic Lynch (treble) – Miles
instrumental ensemble/Łukas Borowicz
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 28 March 2015 DUX 1247/8 [50.57 + 53.33]
As recently as the beginning of last year, when reviewing the LSO Live recording of this opera conducted by Richard Farnes (review), I noted that since Britten’s pioneering 1955 Decca LPs there had been eleven issues (five audio, six video) of The turn of the screw, most of them the products of the previous fifteen years. In that review I used Britten’s mono recording as a benchmark for comparison, and commented that it still comprehensively wiped the floor with much of the later competition – not so much in terms of the inevitably dated recorded sound, but in the engagement of the original cast with the work which they had helped to create. I also noted that this was an opera which really benefited from the presence of the visual element, which might affect the decisions of potential purchasers. This new issue from Poland now brings the total number of recordings in the current catalogue to twelve.
This new release is a recording of the Polish première of the opera, like the earlier Farnes disc taken from a concert performance. It is clearly designed with the Polish market in mind, since although all the singers are English speakers (and the opera is sung in English) and the English text is provided in the substantial booklet, the only translation provided is in Polish. We are provided with full biographies not only of the singers but also the Polish players who comprise the chamber orchestra, along with a rather tendentious commentary by Agnieszka Łakomska which makes much of the matter of Britten’s sexuality before concluding somewhat lamely “The answer to the question about how much of Britten himself there is in his opera certainly has no impact on the value of the work.” That is true, but the writer takes a long time getting to that point in the argument.
Although, as I have observed, all the singers are English speakers, the three leading soloists are all American and they tend to suffer from a problem I have encountered before with singers who have studied there: an emphasis on continuity of line and smoothness of delivery which sometimes gets in the way of clarity of natural diction. This is almost immediately noticeable as Eric Barry delivers his prologue, as in the phrase “a woman’s hand” (CD1, track 1, 0.35) he pronounces the word “hand” with a curiously closed vowel which bears no resemblance to any English accent I have ever encountered; shortly after he delivers the word “holidays” with almost a long “o” on the first syllable which once again gives precedence to tone over meaning. Even with only a piano accompaniment this sort of thing militates against immediate clarity of the text; one has only to compare his delivery with that of Peter Pears (despite the mannerisms of the latter) to recognise the difference. Similarly Emily Workman in very nearly her first phrase sings “Who will greet me?” (CD1, track 2, 0.11) with a close vowel on the work “greet” that comes very near in sound to “grate”. Again the voice is more substantial than that of Jennifer Vyvyan, but the immediacy of impact is sacrificed to purity of line; Britten himself is on record for violently attacking Robert Tear for exactly this sort of delivery. Unfortunately on this recording the concern for beauty of line also afflicts the native English singers; Diana Montague as Mrs Grose is almost totally unintelligible, certainly when compared to Joan Cross on Britten’s pioneering recording. Without the text provided in the booklet it would be next to impossible to find out what she is discussing with the Governess on her arrival (CD1, track 7, 2.00) even when the accompaniment is reduced to a bare minimum.
In my review of the Farnes recording I also complained about the lack of dramatic involvement apparent in that concert performance (it must be difficult to obtain in the absence of the stage, unless it has been thoroughly worked over during previous live performances). One particular moment I mentioned was the Governess’s reaction when she discovers that she has seen a ghost, on the word “Died?” which lacked impact; here Emily Workman sounds hardly more concerned (CD1, track 11, 6.48), merely showing a mild intonation of curiosity which fails to engage with the emotions that must surely be predominant at that moment.
The children too, I am afraid, seem to have caught the notion that vocal delivery should predominate over dramatic engagement. The small-voiced Dominic Lynch sounds rather piping as Miles, his delivery of “Malo” (at the end of CD1, track 13) really needing more solid sound as he first displays his unnaturally knowing precocity; and when one listens once again to David Hemmings in the pioneering recording it is immediately apparent what is really needed in this passage. During his shouted interjections in Scene Seven (supposedly offstage, although here sounding as if they are delivered from the front of the concert platform) Lynch sounds adolescent rather than child-like (as indeed he does in his final cry of condemnation of his abuser Peter Quint). Rosie Lomas as his sister is similarly lacking in projection, tending to swallow her consonants in a manner that fails to communicate the text earlier in the same scene. Of all the singers it is the American Kathleen Reveille who seems to be most closely engaged with Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, striking sparks off Eric Barry in their supernatural scene together (CD2, track 2); but again her diction in a line like “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” would be more or less unintelligible without the text provided in the booklet.
The recording itself is generally excellent, with a very good balance between the singers and the skilled Polish players who make up the chamber orchestra; the oboe of Aleksandra Rojek is particularly expressive. The mono sound on Britten’s recording was a model of clarity for its period, but it lacks the richness that we find here. As I have noted, however, the offstage effects (so tellingly realised on Britten’s LPs) are hardly distanced at all; and this detracts seriously from the required sense of atmosphere at the first vocal appearance of Peter Quint (CD1, track 17) even though Eric Barry makes every effort to float his lines in a mysterious half-voice. I am afraid to observe that as an audio recording which conveys the full measure of the horrific impact of the psychological plot, Britten’s original cast simply remains unsurpassed. Otherwise the video recording of the Schwetzingen Festival production conducted by Britten’s protégé Steuart Bedford (review), which I reviewed with enthusiasm in 2013, conveys more of what is needed in this opera. Although it is interesting to hear the work making its way onto the Polish stage, I am afraid this set must remain less than ideal. One gets the impression that the cast, presumably knowing that they are being recorded, have concentrated rather more on making sure their vocal lines are clearly and correctly delineated than with the communication of dramatic urgency. The audience, quiet as mice during the performance itself, supply enthusiastic applause (quickly faded down) at the end.