a very effective exercise to keep it simple

The turn of the screw, Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza Opera Festival 2022

Benjamin Britten’s strangely effective setting of Henry James’s novel The Turn of the Screw was first presented at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1954. So, the opera has Italian ties, but it’s hard to imagine the composer thinking which should never be performed in Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza, with an imposing Renaissance statuary wall framing the wall of Bly House, the English countryside setting of this haunting ghost story.

Part of this year’s three-day Vicenza Opera Festival, this is a small-scale production by the Iván Fischer Opera Company, with movable furniture skilfully following the stage (though a couple of moving tombstones seem absurd); Fischer, director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducts with Marco Gandini.

The focus of our attention is not on Palladio but on the compelling characters of a story whose resonance has only increased over time. The housekeeper (Miah Persson), who arrives with naive optimism to take care of Miles (Ben Fletcher) and Flora (Lucy Barlow), is soon disturbed by the appearance of ghosts. From the house’s dark past, waiter Peter Quint (Andrew Staples) and former housekeeper Miss Jessel (Allison Cook) return to reclaim the children, and there’s a struggle for possession.

What transgressive activity may have taken place, especially between Quint and Miles, is just a hint – perhaps they were just (to quote Britten’s Quint) “semi-formed desires”. Fischer argues in his program notes to show us the ambiguity in relationships, yet here Persson’s superbly sung, bright-eyed housekeeper emerges as the centerpiece of goodness, slipping fearfully into over-protection against Miles. In the perfect interpretation of Ben Fletcher, Miles has an erotic charge both towards him and towards the ghost of Peter Quint, which offers him freedom and fantasy.

Andrew Staples’ haunting Quint has a fuller, more rounded voice than Peter Pears (who created the role), and is compelling in the elaborate wraps that Britten seems to derive from listening to medieval music. Laura Aikin’s housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, is focused, stern and protective, while Lucy Barlow’s young Flora, who has a bow that far exceeds Liz Truss’s, watches in dismay as Miles’ relationship with the housekeeper worsens. deepens. He runs away from the scene with Mrs. Grose; Miles remains lifeless in the arms of the housekeeper, their relationship enigmatic to the end.

The turn of the screw, Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza Opera Festival 2022

The turn of the screw, Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza Opera Festival 2022

These are finely controlled characterizations, with only Allison Cook’s witch ghost Miss Jessel on the verge of caricature. They are shaped by the rigid structure of Britten’s score, which creates from an ensemble of just 13 instruments a miraculous cauldron of sound in the interludes between each tense scene. Fischer directs with absolute authority and his directing with Gandini demonstrates that the work does not need elaborate scenic artifices to communicate his emotions vividly.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra celebrated its recent award as Orchestra of the Year by Gramophone magazine and the previous evening a larger number of musicians gave a red-hot performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, clean, punchy and committed to all under the imposing direction of Fischer.

Festival now over

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