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Just finished watching Britten's The Turn of the Screw screened live from Glyndebourne in real time in Auckland New Zealand and it was fantastic. What a way to be able to watch operas. Mark you I did have to wake up at 5.30 in the morning and I was, as all New Zealander's are, a bit late, but I caught the main scenes that I was interested in.
The visual quality was superb and so too the sound as I listened through ear phones but to lie in bed and watch a Glyndebourne opera is a treat without actually having to make the horrendous journey, the hours and hours it takes, the delays, the discomfort, the queues and that is just the journey down from London!
Now to serious matters! The performance. I found it interesting and I mean that sincerely. This opera has been my life so I know it rather well. In fact in the final scene where Quint and The Governess fight for Miles's soul it suddenly struck me that in this production the underlying theme that was prominent could have been the struggle that Britten had with his own sexuality. Britten for years could never decide whether he was a 'Martha' or an 'Arthur'.
In the production whether it happened by accident or was a deliberate act of the director I noticed this for the first time. The torment of choosing between the total love of man for man as represented by Quint or the delights of heterosexuality and family as offered by the Governess is too much for the young adolescent. Flora on the other hand is much more mature and doesn't give a toss but gets on with life and takes it as it comes.
Britten could like women both Stephen Reiss, Aldeburgh's famous company manager, Colin Graham, the opera director and even myself can witness this. Britten was extremely fond of Jennifer Vyvyan, the original Governess. The part was tailored for her and Quint for Peter Pears. Britten did not know how to end the opera and it was Vyvyan who suggested a reprise of the haunting Malo theme but Pears, Britten's life long partner clung on like a leach and eventually Vyvyan was 'ghosted'. Pears could be very vicious on occasions and very possessive. Pears loathed playing Quint.
In the final scene Britten who may subconsciously have cast himself as Miles, would be torn between them. Neither won and Britten kept his sexuality a secret till his death. Nobody questioned his sexual choice during his life. They would have been sued and ghosted. Charles Mackerras, the conductor was ghosted and admonished just for pointing out there were an awful lot of little boys in Noyes Fludde!
There is no doubt Peter Pears was 100% gay and admitted it but Britten never did during his life time. He was androgynous. The Turn of the Screw has many interpretations but I think this sexual struggle may have been very close to the composer's heart and one reason why this opera is so powerful. It was only on seeing this production that this thought struck me. I was too naive when I was 16! It is only now I am nearing the end that I can confront the unmentionable.
When I saw the rehearsals the Governess, played by my favorite soprano at the moment Miah Presson, looked perfect. With her long blonde hair and frumpy shoes she looked every inch the 18 year old naive daughter of a country parson. This I thought was perfect casting and would give Jennifer Vyvyan's performance a run for its money and then the designer stepped in with a 1950's wig! Oh dear the 18 year old became a frumpy 40. All innocence was lost. The governess looked as old as The Housekeeper. Big mistake. Tip, real hair always looks better and should be used if possible.
Regretfully however good Ms Presson's English, she is Swedish, and her command of the language does not have the nuance required for this opera. It is the shades of inflection that are so essential. Vyvyan did this splendidly but for Ms Presson although she was adequate just sang it. In her Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro she was Susanna. With the fuddy duddy wig one had little sympathy for her. She was not helped by the direction. Confining her to a chair for the final scene did not allow much scope dramatically. Maybe this is what the director wanted.
Poor Flora! Beautifully sung and performed by Joanna Song was again relegated to the sidelines. Very few close ups even in her big scenes and her charm was only allowed to show through in the curtain calls. Flora has to be charming. James makes a point of Flora appearing to be an angel. This Flora was not, in fact she was crude and it would have been the director's decision. Here was an singer who should have been given more chance to shine. Miles who was adequate, should be able to look after himself. Lots of close ups of Miles!!!
That poor Flora's head stuck in a wash basin for the whole of Quint's seduction was not a good idea. For those unfamiliar this is a long aria of ravishing music The director must have sure hated Flora! I am glad I was not asked to do this! I don't think Mr Britten would have approved one tiny bit. He would have hated it.
I don't think Mr Britten would have appreciated Flora sticking a doll up her jumper to make her look pregnant either in the church yard scene. As I child of the 50's myself I can tell you naughty or otherwise and you can see from the review I was always a bit of a rebel I should never have done that. I hardly knew what pregnant was! None if us did!
Musically I felt the orchestra just played the notes beautifully but without feeling. The ghosts seduction musically was too clinical for my taste. It is sheer sexual sensuality of sound that counts and not whats on the page. Mackerras was far more sympathetic as Britten realized. Britten forgave Mackerras when it came to The Screw. Britten knew he needed Mackerras on this occasion.
However I did enjoy the production. I loved the video of the train journey and the revolve and some of the direction was so clever. Did it do Henry James and Britten justice? Not sure. The Screw is so understated and this one was blatant and in your face. Those ghosts were real. Britten even though suspected he believed the children had been abused never went that far.
Would Britten have liked this version? Difficult question but it should be asked. I think not. Britten was fussy about this opera. He shelved it in UK for years until he was happy with the casting. Then it was only performed occasionally under supervision. I am not sure this production would have healed the famous Glyndebourne/Britten rift. Perhaps it is better that he is unable to see it!
Oh yes! The Turn of the Screw will still continue to be the subject of many PhD's literary and musical for many years to come.
However I am delighted to have seen it. More please! Congratulations to all and if like me you were late you can catch it here for the next 3 weeks. Well worth it!