As our operatic experiences continue to be framed by pandemic conditions, virtual and live landscapes abound with chamber works, reduced orchestrations, and adaptations. One overarching trend is the careful attention to filmic dimensions of digital premieres, nudging the game forward from the generally high production values of cinema broadcasts. In this context, Andrea Breth’s staging of The Turn of the Screw for La Monnaie (directed for video by Miriam Hoyer with sound design by Christoph Mateka) achieves a highly satisfying level of polish. At the same time, one recognizes a precisely executed live performance at its core – one that would be thrilling to experience in person.
The nebulous atmosphere of Henry James’ novella supports Benjamin Britten’s handling of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as deceased spirits who seem to retain influence over the orphans Miles and Flora. By contrast, the children’s world in the operatic score is peppered with realistic music-making moments like the song Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, evocative of youthful naïveté. All the more telling, then, is Britten’s scene in Act 2 when the 10-year-old Miles is to perform beyond his years at the keyboard, his prowess suggestive of adult strength and abilities. Already during the Prologue Breth uses the piano as a prop and portal into the realm of the surreal. When the instrument in the orchestra pit opens up to include its counterparts and the narrator’s recollection unlocks a warped, multi-layered tale, a male actor slowly slides into the broken grand piano on the stage floor. Miles and Flora later slither out of the same space to sing the song about the piper’s son. As enacted, their simple song is anything but. Their innocence is scarcely palpable in this labyrinthine flashback, exquisitely realized through Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s unsettlingly stark and fluid sets. A pair of over-sized wardrobes later serve as portals to darkly imaginative spaces, creatively coordinated with blocking and gestures to emphasize a sense of the surreal.
Ed Lyon delivered an arresting performance of the Prologue’s narration, capturing our attention and concern before his anonymous image takes on symbolic heft. Six male dark-suited doubles populate the production. At several moments we see them as voyeurs or lifeless reminders of something elusive or missing, while during an early instrumental interlude one emerges as the spinster Governess’s romantic dance partner. (All of the orchestral transitions are sophisticated and far-reaching in their visual treatment.)
Sally Matthews sang a richly hued and deeply invested vocal performance as the Governess throughout, as did Carole Wilson in the role of Mrs Grose, both reinforcing the impression that the experience of the story strongly colours its retelling. This is also true of Julian Hubbard’s wildly disheveled and riveting performance of Peter Quint, who appeared as the source of anarchy and transgression from the outset. He dominated Miss Jessel, attractively and seductively sung by Giselle Allen. Henri de Beauffort and Katharina Bierweiler crafted essential and mature performances of Miles and Flora respectively in this intricate theatrical conception.
Contributing provocatively against the grain of this tapestry of shattered innocence and concomitant distortion are the orchestral voices, at times pure or nostalgic, at others assuredly robust and genuinely effusive. Ben Glassberg conducted the mostly masked orchestra with firm focus to embody these human dimensions, connecting fruitfully above all with Matthews’ Governess and preventing the otherwise moribund tale from collapsing flat.