Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Turn of the Screw (NI Opera): an intimate, well-acted opera with a tight cast and great set

NI Opera’s The Turn of the Screw is on a completely different scale to previous operas that I’ve seen. (You can still count them all on the fingers of one hand!)

A cast of six inhabit a country house looked after by housekeeper Mrs Grose (played by Yvonne Howard). It’s a ghost story of sorts. An unnamed governess (Katie Bird) takes up a post to look after two children for their guardian uncle who is too busy to care for them. As the story develops, unexpected characters from the family’s past appear around the property, often staring through windows and doors.

While Flora (Lucia Vernon-Long) and Miles (Garbhan McEnoy) at first seem happy and carefree, the actions of the former valet Peter Quint (Sam Furness) and a previous governess Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) may have had a lasting and detrimental influence on the children. By the second act, phantasmic apparitions have increased the sense of terror and the children begin to speak of terrible acts.

You can wander into most films and plays with no notion of the plot and enjoy them. Opera benefits from a solid understanding of the framework of the storyline to which you can link the scenes and snippets of on stage action. Otherwise the storyline becomes very murky and any difficulty perceiving the lyrics leads to frustration. The synopsis in the programme booklet is worth reading before the lights go down!

The small cast brings with it an intensity of acting that – along with the music – means The Turn of the Screw would verge on becoming a musical if it wasn’t for the operatic style of the singing. Lucia Vernon-Long’s pure soprano voice blended delicately with the less powerful treble voice of Year 8 pupil Garbhan McEnoy as the siblings sing nursery rhymes and mess about musically on the way to church.

The stripped back cast is coupled with a minimalist musical accompaniment: just fifteen musicians under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers are crammed into an orchestra pit I hadn’t realised existed under the Lyric stage. Britten’s discordant score makes as much use of woodwind and percussion as strings. During the prologue the lyrics are beautifully clear as they are sung over the thinnest strains of piano. However, there are times later in the performance when the orchestra becomes too enthusiastic and threaten to drown out the cast.

Set designer Annemarie Woods conceived layers of hinged dingy grey walls that move about the stage and combine to create each new location. The scene changes are choreographed together with precision lighting that allows beams of sunlight to illuminate the otherwise moribund house. Characters step out from gloomy corners into rooms, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Dynamic silhouettes add to the drama.

The opera is based on a story by Henry James. Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto. There are autobiographical elements – some perhaps disturbing – in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera which explores desire, conscience and class.

The Turn of the Screw was first produced by NI Opera and directed by Oliver Mears back in 2012. Since then it has travelled to English festivals and most recently to Moscow (supported by the British Council). Those who fret about public funding of local arts and culture should not forget the international opportunities for artists’ performance as well as the portrayal of Northern Ireland as a creative hub.

After two sell-out performances in the Lyric Theatre, The Tale of the Screw heads to Derry’s Millennium Forum on Tuesday 15 March. NI Opera return with Mozart's Don Giovanni in the Grand Opera House on 18-19 November.

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