Quite simply the most riveting thing I've seen in months, English National Opera's new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw is a haunting, compelling experience which should be seen by all who appreciate intelligent theatre.
Turning its back on the critical doldrums of recent times, the company has the winning combination of Britten, a composer ENO nearly always serves well, David McVicar, one of the country's most insightful directors, and a strong cast of six that could rarely be matched and never bettered.
McVicar treats the piece with his typical eye for period atmosphere, employing key images of Victoriana such as cast iron beds, a rocking horse and a paraffin lamp to ensure that the opera retains its roots in Henry James' novella.
Sliding transparent panels move in and out, allowing the scenes to change seamlessly in sympathy with the fluidity of Britten's structuring of the score, while the ghostly bodies of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint emerge as if from nowhere to inhabit the two children, Miles and Flora, much to the horror of their Governess and the housekeeper Mrs Grose.
Tanya McCallin's designs are deceptively simple, allowing the action to proceed without over-embellishment. The lesson in the schoolroom in Act I uses only bare desks, for instance, but Adam Silverman's lighting draws the eye into the action so that even in the massive Coliseum the work still seems like a chamber opera. The dramatic scene with the piano in Act II is brilliantly done, with the singer in the role of Miles convincingly miming playing the piano to distract the Governess and Mrs Grose while Flora runs away to Miss Jessel. The production's great strength is its simplicity: at the end of the opera, for instance, we're left with just the Governess transfigured in a beam of light as she kneels on the floor and holds the dead Miles. You'd have to be soulless indeed not to be moved by it.
However it's the music which really impresses here, the chamber orchestra both rhythmically alert and sensitive to the contrasting timbres of each scene under conductor Garry Walker (making an auspicious ENO debut).
All six members of the cast were in phenomenal voice and entered into the drama with the utmost conviction. However, Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans was in a league of her own as the Governess. 'How beautiful it is', she sings in the first act in a rare moment of optimism, but Evans could have been referring to her voice, here at its most exquisite. There's not a weak spot in it; she simply glides up and down every register, projecting strongly and calling to mind her exceptional Covent Garden Pamina in the high floating legato quality she brought to the more lyrical scenes. Indeed, I think the Governess could easily become as much her signature role as Pamina has been for many years, for the clarity of her diction, the meaning and emotion she brought to everything she sang and the sheer beauty of the sound she created at this performance are all too rare qualities. (Read our interview with Rebecca Evans here)
Impressive, too, was Ann Murray as Mrs Grose, still formidable in her vocal reserves and an arresting but generous actress (read our interview with her on the role here). She was the perfect foil for Evans' insightful Governess, and to hear the two of them sing together was magical.
Tenor Timothy Robinson got the evening off to a strong start with a well-projected rendition of the Prologue and gave the character of Quint an extra ghostliness in places by creating wonderfully hollow sounds. Cheryl Barker made Miss Jessel a tortured creation, eschewing the temptation to play the role with a generalised evilness, and shot out her lines with a hardness which enhanced her physical portrayal.
Outstanding performances too from the children, the fourteen-year-old George Longworth (Miles) and Guildhall School of Music and Drama student Nazan Fikret (Flora). Considering that they were appearing alongside several of the world's finest opera singers, it's a huge credit to them that their well-tuned, confidently projected and often exquisite singing easily lived up to that of their professional co-stars.
There are a mere five performances left of this exceptional show, and nobody should hesitate to buy a ticket. I, for one, intend to see it again before the week is out.
The Turn of the Screw Photos © Neil Libbert