Magazine article The Spectator

The Turn of the Screw/Twilight of the Gods

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turn of the Screw/Twilight of the Gods

Article excerpt

Opera

Dark intentions

The Turn of the Screw Royal College of Music Twilight of the Gods Barbican The Turn of the Screw is this autumn's Benjamin Britten Opera School's presentation at the Royal College of Music, with as usual two alternating casts of young singers, and the same conductor throughout. I saw the second cast, and as always was extremely impressed by the all-round level of singing and acting, and also and especially by the virtuoso playing of the RCM opera orchestra.

John Copley directed, and oddly it was here that I had mixed feelings. As all the greatest purveyors of ghost stories knew, and certainly the two Jameses, Henry and M.R., the surest way to terrify an audience is to establish an air of reassuring normality, into which disconcerting things gradually intrude. Myfanwy Piper, Britten's librettist, is faithful to James in that respect, and Britten is still more masterly in moving stealthily between the suave atmosphere of the classroom and the lawns and the eruptions of unexplained sightings of the dead servants, and the unnerving behaviour on the part of the children. But Copley has the whole thing taking place in a black setting with columns, into which pieces of furniture are moved when necessary, but without any sense being given of a relaxed country-house setting. He seems to subscribe, too, to the view that the ghosts are projections of the Governess's neurotic imagination, for the big scene of Yeats-quoting recrimination between them takes place with the Governess asleep in-between them in her bed. That view of the status of the ghosts can't be plausibly maintained, however much it may add a frisson of disturbed and disturbing repressed sexuality. It may well be that Britten would have welcomed it, but James doesn't give room for it.

Of the children, the 12-year-old David Olbrich performed Miles with alarming aplomb, and with an ideally bell-like voice for concealing his dark intentions. Unfortunately it was impossible to understand more than one in ten of his words, and that was a failing that afflicted almost every member of the cast, in an opera where nuance and implication count for so much - and it is also a general failing of British opera singers at the present time. The Flora of Elizabeth Watts was marginally more intelligible, but at the cost of her sounding adult, which she is. Katrina Waters's Mrs Grose is a generous presence and voice, and Simona Mihai's Governess is the perfect Jane-Eyreish figure I have always imagined. So much was right about the performance that I was puzzled to be so little stirred by Act I, more by Act II. The Britten Theatre is exactly the right size for this work, though what I had hoped would be the chief advantage of it, audibility, failed to eventuate. …

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