NZO: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

NZ Opera production

Thursday 3 October 2019, Opera House Wellington

Music: Benjamin Britten 
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper

[based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James]

Director: Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Conductor: Holly Mathieson

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

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Governess :  Anna Leese
Prologue / Peter Quint :  Jared Holt
Miss Jessel:  Madeleine Pierard
Mrs Grose :  Patricia Wright
Flora : Alexa Harwood
Miles :  Alexandros Swallow

with members of Orchestra Wellington

Assistant Director : Eleanor Bishop
Set & Costume
Designer Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Designer Matthew Marshall
Répétiteurs and Musical Preparation: Rosemary Barnes, Lesley Graham, David Kelly, Catherine Norton, Shelagh Richardson, Lindy Tennent-Brown, Michael Vinten

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tldr: the short story

NZO’s The Turn Of The Screw by Benjamin Britten at Wellington’s Opera House had a perfect cast, was perfectly performed and sung, and had a unsettling set, galvanic lighting and a ghostly, ghastly, uneasy, psychological drama.
In short – a fabulous, compelling production. 

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The long story:

When you first came in to the Opera House, because there was no proscenium curtain, the set was ‘in your face’ and quite confronting. The ‘house’ was a gesture of columns and beams but they were tilted, not square, off-kilter. The perspective was skew-whiff and it conveyed that the perspective – literal and virtual (read: psychological) – was unsettled and unstable. I was reminded of the amazing set of the 1920’s film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or the design of most of Tim Burton’s films.

Basically, this is a Chamber Opera, with only six singers (with five treble voices!) and an orchestra of 13 players. The orchestra and conductor were on-stage, part of the set, so the balance was perfect. In fact, often Britten’s score alternated the accompaniment and the singers lines, or the accompaniment was two or three instruments only. The orchestra was superb. With only 13 players, everyone was a soloist and they played magnificently – aided, I suspect, by the taut expertise of conductor Holly Mathieson. Because Holly was mostly behind them, TV monitors relayed the conductors intentions to the singers. The professionalism of the singers – even with the children – was demonstrated that, even with the tricky rhythms and melodies that Britten composed, they didn’t miss a beat.

As the Governess Anna Leese was perfect. She conveyed the complicated character of this young girl, inexperienced but wanting to be capable, with a believable and gritty performance – in turn nervous, afraid, apprehensive, aghast, lost, bold, angry, combative, triumphant and ultimately distraught. Her voice captured the dramatic impulses consummately. Her tone was full and rich in every register, and she played with dynamics remarkably.

Patricia Wright as Mrs Grose was excellent – a mature presence and voice that blended well with the other characters. The children – Alexa Harwood as Flora and Alexandros Swallow as Miles were quite remarkable. Initially they played the mischievous youngsters, full of fun and naughtiness, but we got to see tham as damaged and corrupted characters –Flora suffocating her doll to make ‘sleep’, Miles stealing the letter to his uncle. Their voices were innocent and unaffected – a good balance for the developed tone from the adults.

As the angry, manipulative, bitter and malicious ghosts,  Jared Holt as Peter Quint and Madeleine Pierard as Miss Jessel were exemplary. The acrimonious argument with Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in the beginning of the Act Two was potent and riveting.

In fact, I can’t fault any of the singers at all. Their acting gestures were believable, their tone, breath control, dynamics, intonation, range – in short, their singing was superb. Britten’s operatic music is orchestrally sparse. It was not like the Italian Romantic opera composers who have the orchestra doubling, tripling, or quadrupling the melody. In Britten, the melody and the harmony is the responsibility of every singer and instrumentalist themselves because everyone has a different line or phrase.

The galvanic lighting design and the period costumes matched the professionalism of the other elements in this production. The backlit silhouettes on the curtains were ominous. The direction was effective and compelling – especially the front-stage area. I thought that some of the props and furniture were superfluous and made the set look messy? And I suspect that sightlines could be difficult for some people in some places.

It was a fabulous, compelling production – perfectly cast, perfectly performed and sung, and had a unsettling set, galvanic lighting and a ghostly, ghastly, uneasy, psychological drama.

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