Opera review: Turn of the Screw, Regent’s Park open air theatre
PUBLISHED: 17:42 28 June 2018 | UPDATED: 17:42 28 June 2018
Caroline David feels the chill but not enough spookiness at ghostly chamber opera that hints at child abuse
For their first venture into opera Regents Park Theatre team up with the ENO to present Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. Based on Henry James’ famously elusive spooky novella, Britten’s challenging opera makes more explicit the darker themes of child abuse. Timothy Sheader’s taut production, conducted by Toby Pursor, uses the open air space to create a shimmering, magical world in which the children’s desire for freedom from Victorian constraints is powerfully caught.
Soutra Gilmour’s decayed greenhouse set is simply beautiful. Multiple glass walls and doors evoke Bly, the home where the two children live abandoned by their socialite uncle and under the charge of the new Governess. Flanked by the park’s trees, the greenhouse is bedded in with generous swathes of pampas grass [shipped in specially] while decking suggests a nearby lake. It’s a bewitching space that is both paradise and prison.
The dreamy realism is offset by the Gothic treatment of the ghosts: former valet Peter Quint [Elgan Llyr Thomas] and his mistress Miss Jessel [Elin Pritchard], the children’s previous Governess. That the pair abused the children [never made explicit in the opera or novella] seems more likely here as the two appear with chalked up faces, Quint sporting a mighty red beard, and both in creepy Victoriana garb. They stalk the stage, at times singing from the back of the auditorium - a vocal challenge given the 13-piece orchestra concealed in the pit. The miked up singers sometimes drown out the instruments, especially the piano, which was barely audible at times.
A flattening of ambiguity also affects the portrayal of the Governess. Less a fantasist and more a wholesome zealot, Anita Watson’s mellifluous soprano draws you in but her descent into mental disintegration feels too swift. Janis Kelly as housekeeper Mrs Grose gives a heartfelt depth to Britten’s dissonance. On press night both children were excellent, conveying strikingly layered inner depths.
Atmospheric but not as spooky as it could be, this production is confidently compact. Appropriately enough, as the evening drew in the elements played their part with circling birds cawing like a chorus of willful spirits.