Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Turn of the Screw @ Coliseum, London

22, 24, 30 October 4, 7, 9 November 2009

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith/ENO)

Revisiting The Turn of Screw for the first time in over half a century Charles Mackerras brings his Midas touch to bear on Britten’s score. The results are enthralling, as he draws faultless playing from the thirteen instrumental soloists and magnificent performances from a strong cast. David McVicar was on hand to direct the first revival of his award-winning production and ensured that none of the visceral power of the original was lost.

To have the services of a conductor who actually worked with the composer, and shared the conducting duties with him, is an invaluable asset and a rare privilege. When the person in question happens to be the greatest living opera conductor, namely Charles Mackerras, then there’s a guarantee of success that’s almost a given. No other conductor is at home in such a broad-reaching repertoire as he is and we were reminded at the close, when Edward Gardner paid him a moving tribute from the stage, that Mackerras made his debut with what was then the Sadler’s Wells opera over 60 years ago (before it became ENO) and has conducted more than 50 operas ranging from Mozart to Wagner, Verdi to Strauss and, of course Janáček for the company.

Now, as a youthful 84-year-old, he has returned to conduct The Turn of the Screw for the first time in over fifty years. His knowledge of the score was evident in every bar and he secured wonderfully alert playing from the 13 members of the ENO orchestra. How one marvelled time after time at Britten’s erudite and concise ability to produce such a kaleidoscopic orchestral palette from such minimal resources – here is a true genius at work. The playing was virtuosic and Mackerras’ grasp of the score was faultless.

Many of the original cast from two years ago returned to the production and if anything had deepened their portrayals. At the heart of this particular tragedy Rebecca Evans delivers a febrile, nervy account of the Governess whilst Ann Murray’s trenchantly delivered Mrs Grose was a force to be reckoned with. Cheryl Barker is suitably other-worldly as Miss Jessel whilst Charlie Manton (Miles) and Nazan Fikret (Flora) are a creepy, well-sung pair of children. There is so much ambiguity in this opera that one is never sure exactly what is real and what is imagined but McVicar tends to direct us into making us believe that something very unsavoury and distasteful has happened in the past, although what precisely that may be remains for us to decipher.

There can be no doubt however that Peter Quint has been a malevolent presence in Miles’ life, and in Michael Colvin’s slightly demonic demeanour and chilling stage presence he made the character the true embodiment of evil. His singing had plenty of bite too. So with as strong a cast as you could wish for, and exemplary musical values this revival of Turn of the Screw finds ENO, after their dispiriting and misguided Turandot, back on world-beating form. Unmissable.

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