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Winter 2015

Unnatural

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Wendy Lesser

The Turn of the Screw,
composed by Benjamin Britten,
based on the Henry James story.
Opera Holland Park, London,
July 2014.


So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that it’s amazing any of them succeed at all. The composer has to be a good musician, of course, but he must also be in sympathy with the librettist and, if there is a separate source author, with that writer as well. Once their initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up: the director, the set, costume, and lighting designers, the conductor, the orchestra members, and of course the singers. In most operas, these onstage performers need to be able to act as well as sing; it also helps if they look right for their parts. The list of potential pitfalls goes on and on—the acoustics of the hall, the size and nature of the audience, the comfort or discomfort of the seats. It’s endless, and daunting.

Before last summer, I had never even heard of Opera Holland Park, so I was admittedly taking a risk in attending their production of The Turn of the Screw during my short London stay. But I was curious to see this Britten opera, which had thus far evaded me—plus word-of-mouth on the production was good, and ticket prices were reasonable, especially compared to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne. And so it was that my two friends and I, after enjoying a lovely, rain-free picnic at the edge of the Holland Park cricket grounds, found ourselves indoors at 8:00 p.m., when the sky of a London summer was still light outside.

“Indoors” is a relative term, for we were actually in a large rectangular tent, custom-built to hold a few hundred people in well-raked seats adjoining a small stage. The tent was solid enough to withstand the elements if need be, but not so solid as to exclude them entirely. Throughout the performance, if I looked to the side, I could see the sky gradually darkening, while the wind, which increased in intensity as the evening wore on, whipped the tops of the nearby trees and even caused the tent flaps to flutter. No setting could have been more appropriate for Henry James’s eerie story, which had been adapted for the stage by librettist Myfanwy Piper. And the production itself was well-nigh flawless. It offered both the shivers of a well-told ghost story and the exhilaration of beautifully achieved art—not alternately but simultaneously, since the terrors were part of the thrill.

Though I adore James beyond all other writers, this particular novella has always been one of my least favorite of his works, and the heavy psychologizing that, over the decades, has been used by Freudian-minded academics to “explain” the Governess’s fears about the ghosts has only made things worse. Repressed virgin, in sole charge of two seemingly innocent but excessively knowing children, in a vast, empty house inhabited by no one else but a housekeeper, who functions mainly to inform the nameless Governess of the evil doings, sexual and otherwise, of the now-dead pair, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint: these are the ingredients James used to construct a tale in which the Governess’s hysteria, with or without supernatural assistance, somehow results in the death of the delicate boy, Miles. It is all a bit hokey on the page. But Britten knew exactly what to do with it. He made the ghosts into real characters, with real singing parts, which means that we can’t simply write them off as figments of the Governess’s neurosis. We see them too, so if they are ghosts, then ghosts—for the duration of this performance, at any rate—are real.

The music is Britten at his best: atmospheric and natural, but also hauntingly supernatural, with moments that veer from frightening to tender and back, through off-melodies and slight dissonances that are alluring but also deeply sad and even viscerally distressing. The singers, too, were perfectly chosen for their roles. The two children, Miles and Flora, were played here by two redheads, Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas; so was the strangely seductive, mildly repellent Peter Quint, sung by Brendan Gunnell. This not only set up a persuasive connection between the siblings themselves as well as between the children and the male ghost; it also made all three characters look witchily weird onstage, with their extremely pale skin and vibrant hair glowing intensely under Mark Jonathan’s lighting. It was as if the three of them—the living, the undead, and the soon-to-be-dead—had come to us from some fairy-tale realm that was also the land of death.

Dominic Lynch is truly a boy (he had to be, to carry the lines of his boy-soprano part), but Rosie Lomas is actually a tiny woman in her twenties, fully capable of coming across as Miles’s slightly older sister, but with a lovely, clear voice that is more skillfully developed than any teenager’s could be. The tenderness in their scenes together was palpable—they often held hands, or she put her arm protectively around him—and one could also feel, as if in one’s own body, the threat that Peter Quint represented to their innocence. It helped, perhaps, that while this production was on, Britain was swirling with media accounts of long-hidden child abuse, so that the performance seemed to be, as it were, ripped from the headlines. But I’m positive the opera’s chilling terrors would have felt real enough without this.

Everything about the remarkable staging can be attributed, I presume, to the brilliance of the director, Annilese Miskimmon—not a familiar name to me, though it should have been. (Born in Belfast and now forty years of age, she has already worked with a range of international opera companies, including San Francisco’s.) She intelligently set the whole production in a classroom of indeterminate historical period, with a few individual tables and chairs, and a set of wardrobe-like wooden cupboards ranged around the rear of the stage. The ghosts, when they appeared, crouched behind and even on top of these movable closets, almost as if having materialized from inside them—which would be exactly how a childish imagination would conceive of the situation.

During one of Peter Quint’s earliest appearances, he crept along on top of the row of closets, hovering threateningly above the children and their Governess (who was sung, incidentally, by the excellent Ellie Laugharne, with a perfect combination of conviction and self-doubt). I made the mistake of looking away from Quint for a moment, and the next thing I knew, he had reappeared on a low desk—in a flash, precisely the way a ghost would. From then on I kept him steadily in view so as not to miss his next slithery descent, which proved equally dramatic when seen. You cannot invent this kind of staging without singers who can move well, but Miskimmon made sure she had this ingredient, along with the red hair, the marvelous voices, and all the other rare characteristics that were even more surprising in combination. The unnatural, the unlikely, was clearly the rule of the day. It seemed almost inconceivable that such an artistic miracle could be cohering before our very eyes, right there in a tent in a London park—almost as incredible as the idea that ghosts might really exist. And yet it happened.



Wendy Lesser, the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review, is working on a biography of the architect Louis Kahn. Her most recent book, Why I Read, is out in paperback in January.
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