It's hard to imagine The Turn of the Screw more perfectly performed than in ENO's staging by David McVicar, which opened at the Coliseum last night. Were I rating it I'd give it six stars out of five.
It's a stomach-turning work at the best of times and the Victorian setting - dead leaves, golden sunsets - captures the essence of its world of repressed emotion: part of the essence is revealed to be the impossibility of speaking aloud anything of emotional significance... perhaps that is why saying Peter Quint's name kills Miles at the end. McVicar's production (originally made for the Mariinsky in 2006) teases out the mysteries of Britten's understated forbidden attractions so that they are palpable while remaining subtle and complicated. Henry James would be proud.
Watching this opera can feel a bit like stepping into one of the more uptight British films from the 1950s and I always long for the music to be more haunting in its own right than it is. It's good, but compared to the composer's closest peer, Shostakovich, it is kind of second-strata and I vaguely wonder whether, had anyone else had composed it somewhere else in the world, it would still be so perennial...Still, one takes it on its own terms and its impact is quiet, chilling, of its time, of its place. Is the UK's obsession with paedophilia possibly relevant to its enduring popularity?
It centres, of course, on the side of paedophilia that the tabloid press never talks about: its direct and lasting psychological effect on the children. Here Miles, fabulously acted and sung by young Charlie Manton, is a golden boy on the brink of puberty but who knows much too much, much too young, and it is pretty obvious what Peter Quint has done to him and what he's probably done to a boy at school as a result. Nazan Fikret's Flora is a portrait of squashed, seething anger while those around her try to maintain the fiction that she is a good little girl (and her singing is every bit as fine as the rest of this world-class cast's). Just watch her face and body language while Miles sings his 'Malo' song... The anguished relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel is made fully human and adds significant poignancy - a breathtaking moment as her hands reach up for his through the leaves on her grave. Yes, they're ghosts, but their afterlife symbolises the afterlife they live in the minds of the young people whose lives they have ruined.
Absolutely amazing performances all round: Rebecca Evans anguished as the Governess and Ann Murray an ideal Mrs Grose, Michael Colvin and Cheryl Barker giving all in their ghostly roles, and Charles Mackerras, no less, controlling the taut, ascerbic, sepia-toned score.
Five more performances, book online here.
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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