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Sunday, 14 August 2011

Glyndebourne V and VI: Britten and Dvorak

The Turn of the Screw


There is a not uncommon view that The Turn of the Screw is Britten's greatest opera, and though I don't agree, I can see why - the masterly construction, beauty of the score, brilliant use of the chamber ensemble and in a good performance the emotional impact are all undeniably compelling. For me though, the story doesn't quite come off in its operatic setting, the ambiguities of the plot necessarily clarified and weakened by the operatic medium - above all, the ghosts are visible and they sing - there can be no doubt that they are real (at least in this staging, and in Britten's mind also), which to me makes the story far less interesting. There are certainly ambiguities and uncertainties that remain in the story as presented by Britten/Piper, and their goal was to stay as close to the original as possible, but I'm not sure how successful they were. This 2006 staging by Jonathan Kent is extremely spartan, the major feature being a very large sheet of windows that rotates and tilts, creating variously the barrier between indside and outside the house, a green house, and the surface of a lake. Most of the stage is white, with scene changes dealt with using revolving stage sections. I wasn't that great a fan of it all - too little atmosphere was evoked, and it never really seemed disturbing - the ghosts are too obviously present, too closely in contact with the kids, the set too often on the move to create the crushing stillness and sadness of the book. And what did it being updated to the 1950s (the third updating to this decade this season!) really add? Not really much more to say about it.

The casting was strong. Miah Persson was the governess, standing in for the pregnant Kate Royal, and made a convincing character on stage. The voice is certainly pretty, but lacks variation in colour, and the top is a bit tweety and shrill at the moment for the full lyric roles that she undoubtedly will come to inhabit. Susan Bickley's voice has a very particular steely edge, but she was excellent as Mrs Grose, with some surprisingly beautiful pianissimo top notes. Toby Spence and Giselle Allen as the ghosts were both strong vocally, delivering some lovely singing, but as I have said, I objected to how concrete and commonplace they seemed - no spectral mysteriousness in sight. The two kids were also good - Thomas Parfitt as Miles an excellent treble, stunningly lovely in his aria, and Joanna Songi despite the fact that she has now graduated from Cambridge, was convincingly girly and cute (and small!) as Flora with her girlish, choral voice.

As I've said before about Rusalka, it's one of my favourite operatic scores. This Glyndebourne production, directed by Milly Still and designed by Rae Smith, doesn't try to do anything too radical with the thing, and like the Grange Park Opera production I attended, feels subtly updated and modern, though not at the expense of the fairy tale aspects of the opera. I can't say I was that enamoured with this production either - it was hardly a feast for the eye (and I think it was trying to be), the psychological action seemed slightly neglected or at least unimaginatively presented, and the sexyness of the score and libretto is hammed up to the max whenever possible. And I'm nitpicking here, but the scientist in me wants to reject the furry mermaid tails (mammals are pretty much the opposite of fish with regards to surface texture). I don't have that much to say about this production really. It was fine, but strangely, I found myself hankering after the detail and sensitivity of the Grange Park Production, even if I didn't much enjoy what that one looked like either.

The singing at least was decent. Dina Kuznetsova made a fine Rusalka, generally singing nicely and good in the more dramatic, loud moments of the score, but without it ever seeming truly remarkable. One annoyance was that there was very little legato as the line was constantly broken up her consonants - the result was often lots of little yelps, rather than a sustained phrase - the biggest casualty of this approach was the Song to the Moon, which felt disappointing. Acting wise I didn't feel like there was much of a journey for her, which is to say I wasn't too engaged with Rusalka's plight this time. Pavel Cernoch as the Prince was in excellent voice, and did this extremely demanding part justice without ever sounding strained or overtaxed. Occasionally a bit more volume might have been nice, but his is a very lovely lyric-spinto sound and he did well. Again though, the character was hard to relate to and seemed a bit two dimensional. Larissa Diadkova was OK as Jezibaba, and can definitely sing the part, though often got behind the orchestra. And her characterisation went about as far as the costume, which is to say a Babushka outfit. Sigh. Not a patch on Emma Carrington in this role. I did very much like Tatiana Pavlovskaya as the foreign princess - she clearly relished this minor but major role, swanning around in expensive dresses with a smirk on her face, and of course that brilliant final scene where she damns the prince. Mischa Schelomianski as Vodnik, Rusalka's father, impressed with his powerful delivery - it's another fantastic supporting role. The other minor roles were all well sung.

I have to say that I was disappointed with the conducting of Andrew Davis. The LPO players were OK, but it all felt a bit subdued and featureless - not much commitment from either party. At least the singers were never swamped. But I wanted either more schmaltz or more incisiveness, something to put a stamp of personality on the performance.

None of it was bad by any means, and I don't rescind my earlier claim that Glyndebourne is the UK's best opera house, but I didn't feel the same elation during either of these performances as I had when seeing Meistersinger, Don Giovanni or L'Elisir D'amore earlier in the festival.