Over half a century ago, Sir Charles Mackerras participated in the first performances of The Turn of the Screw, and now he's returning to English National Opera – the company of which he used to be Music Director – to lead a revival of David McVicar's production, first seen in the UK in 2007.
Musically, at least, the results could scarcely be more compelling. This piece is important for its remarkable orchestration: a mere thirteen musicians play in the pit for the whole two-hour duration of the opera. Under Mackerras' baton, the musicians from ENO's orchestra brought out every nuance and detail from the score. The effect was both lyrical and brittle in equal measure, reminding us (if we needed it) that this is both a strikingly modern and traditionally poetical work.
For Mackerras, the ghost story element of Henry James' original novel is only part of what Britten explores in the piece. The role of the Governess is one of the composer's greatest creations, and the other characterisations that revolve around her are drawn in almost as much detail. Colour, texture, articulation and instrumental balance are all brilliantly controlled in Mackerras' reading, and the primacy of the text is a blessing in as large a theatre as the Coliseum. Indeed, the supertitles were completely unnecessary, it seemed to me, since the articulation of the cast was practically impeccable. Standards have never been higher.
On the other hand, I must confess to being a little less enchanted by David McVicar's production than on its first outing here in 2007. Though much of the cast isn't changed, somehow there's a frantic feel to the staging where stillness and silence might be spookier. The main reason for this is that the stagehands are dressed as servants and traipse on and off with the scenery throughout the evening, not always to good effect. Sometimes it contributes to the murkiness of the drama, but at other points it's less obviously motivated. One wondered why, for instance, four servants wheeled on the children's beds for about one minute in the second scene, only to have them wheel them off again almost immediately.
There are pluses and minuses to Tanya McCallin's designs, too. I rather like the sliding panels and windows, and the starkness of the garishly lit furthermost backdrop is beautifully contrasted with black walls that slide in to cover it up. Details such as the rocking horse, piano and writing table are well defined, and in general the whirl that goes on around the Governess' head is well suited to the story. But sometimes, it would be nice to have rooms that are a bit more clearly outlined, which would help the feeling of isolation.
And although it's obviously inappropriate to expect a literal realisation of the original performance and set directions, there are points in the production where exterior and interior aren't specific enough, which can undermine some of the big moments where the Governess is trying to save Miles and Flora from the threat of Miss Jessel and Mr Quint. We really need to feel that they're emerging from nowhere, or coming from the outside and walking through the walls as ghosts, but the lack of spatial definition works against the realisation of the ghostly elements of the plot. I also feel that the spotlights on the stage ought to be a little more hidden: even from my highly privileged seat in the stalls, the workings of the stage machinery were brutally obvious, somewhat undercutting the brilliant illusions created elsewhere.
On the whole, though, the production is still marvellously atmospheric, and where McVicar always scores is in his impeccable direction of the singers. As the Governess, Rebecca Evans has never sounded better, and I can't imagine the role being more engagingly or movingly performed. Nor could the singing be faulted: a move to a slightly heavier repertoire (Mimi, Liu, Countess Almaviva) has given Evans' voice an extra weight without losing any of the beauty, and the Governess sounds fully sung into her voice. The level of expression she achieves is striking, with numerous colours and textual nuances, while the sheer loveliness of the voice remains a pleasure every time I encounter her. Her first Covent Garden Mimi is something to look forward to in a couple of months' time.
Also returning from the original 2007 cast are Dame Ann Murray, whose powerful, sympathetic Mrs Grose seems to become more layered and interesting by the year, and Cheryl Barker as a luxury piece of casting as Miss Jessel. Michael Colvin joins them as the new Prologue/Quint, and in my opinion outdoes his predecessor in the role: the ardent sound he produces is a welcome change from the insipid sound that some English tenors have a tendency to produce, and he was genuinely scary. Hugh Beckwith did a highly credible job as Miles, his small treble voice only succumbing to the enormity of the venue in one or two scenes, but for my taste Nazan Fikret is now a little too old to be vocally correct as Flora (her vibrato is a sign of maturity), even if she still sings with as much meaning and dedication as in 2007.
But let's face it, this is Mackerras and Evans' night, and although the great conductor's 84 years have done nothing to undermine his musicianship, it's inevitable that he won't have too many more Turn of the Screws left in the future – so catch it now.