NZ Opera moved into the more intimate space of the ASB Waterfront Theatre last Friday night with a chamber opera, Benjamin Britten’s dark tale, The Turn of the Screw. Lifted out of a Henry James’ gothic novella and given shape with the libretto writing of Myfanwy Piper, Britten was at the height of his compositional powers when he put this work together in 1954. And yet the final scene he struggled and re-wrote three times. And it is the final scene of NZ Opera’s production that is the most mixed in terms of success.
One of the strongest aspects of this production is the set design by Tracey Grant Lord and lighting design by Matthew Marshall. We enter the dark Victorian house interior, black walls chalk-scribbled with children’s messages. A series of askew archways lead into the black heart of the house. The orchestra of thirteen players is set off to the side, as if in an antechamber. Sooty dust sheets cover the furniture as if hiding dirty secrets. Although relentlessly dark, it contributed hugely to the shadowy nature of this piece.
This is not a brightly lit production but always Marshall’s lighting finds the characters’ faces. It feels like candlelight and a story that never does see the light of day, mired in ambiguity as novelist and composer intended.
In a brilliant touch of light engineering in Act Two, the two children process into church lit by shafts of light as if from the side windows of the church.
The character Peter Quint needs a nasty edge to the voice with enormous expression and a brooding charisma. Jared Holt gave a fantastic interpretation of words and character and delivered words with such bite, almost Gollum-like in his most brilliant scene with Miles in Act Two - “So! She has written, what has she written, take it! take it!”.
Delightful to see Patricia Wright on stage again and what warmth and conviction she brought to the character of Mrs Grose.
The two children played by Alexa Harwood and Alexandros Swallow were impressive in acting and with clear true voices, an off-kilter oddness to Miles and knowing spite to Flora.
Fabulous dramatic colour from Madeleine Pierard as Miss Jessel with power and expression all through her extensive range.
The real core of this piece, however, is the Governess herself played by Anna Leese. Not even given a name, the character still carries the main burden of the storytelling. The audience lives and relates through the realisation of this role so it’s crucial to have a singer-actor who can bring the story alive.
Leese seemed to lack either energy or engagement in Act One. Beautiful sounds always from her lips but a lack of conviction and nuance. This wasn’t altogether helped in the setting of her Act One aria which refers to the beautiful grounds of the estate and has a feeling of euphoria and relief. Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess set this in the Governess’ bedroom as she is washing out of an old tub. Admittedly there was some illusion to trees in the shadow-play on the sooty curtains behind her, but this claustrophobic and interior staging didn’t allow the scene to open out into its inherent beauty.
Act Two was much better, Leese grew in intensity and there was some courageous and emotional singing. The final terrifying scene of Act Two which turns that screw all the way to breaking point however just didn’t quite get there.
There is huge emotional potential in Britten’s immensely detailed ‘road map’ but I just didn’t feel connected to the story on the stage. If it is written in the stage directions, why didn’t the Governess hold Miles in her arms? This desperate denouement could carry the same kind of intensity as the Madame Butterfly suicide scene. But there wasn’t sufficient drama in the staging in the build-up to the battle between the ghostly and earthly characters nor in the departure of Quint.
The talented conductor Holly Mathieson led thirteen players from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra who played with great detail and colour. Moments on piano, harp, percussion, clarinet particularly carried through. The antechamber approach may have worked in terms of not swamping the singers (especially the children) but the removal physically detracted from the integration of singers and band.
A system of sound engineered fold-back was used and monitor screens for the singers but unfortunately the sound still had an 'Us and Them' feel. The choice of not using surtitles was probably a good one given the closeness to the stage of the seating in this auditorium but it cost in terms of some audience connection to the text.
New Zealand Opera made a brave and wonderful choice to present The Turn of the Screw. This is not only a chance to hear one of the most important twentieth-century composers but a great vehicle to deliver a really gritty actor piece in a more chamber environment. The audiences certainly are flocking as the entire season has booked out. and they can expect to see a tale that explores the dark corridors of one's mind. A truly eerie and chilling end to the 2019 NZ Opera season. We cannot wait to see what’s being planned for 2020.