With so many productions of Benjamin Britten’s ghost opera around at the moment we need a new collective noun. A haunting of Screws, perhaps? This Arcola production (presented for just two nights as part of their cheekily-named Grimeborn Festival) caught the eye by announcing two of opera’s bright young things in the principal adult roles. Both Elizabeth Llewellyn and Nicky Spence have seen their stock rise rapidly in 2011, she as Mimi in English National Opera’s La bohème and as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at Holland Park, he as one of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at ENO.
Llewellyn played the Governess, a young woman engaged by a mysterious, unseen guardian to look after the children Miles and Flora, but who discovers (or perhaps imagines) that her charges are possessed by the ghosts of two dead predecessors in the old dark house. The creamy-voiced soprano captured the anguish and confusion that beset her character but did not probe keenly into its potential for psychological ambiguity.
Spence’s great quality is a rich legato that he sustains and moderates with easy control. The ghostly Quint is therefore a good role for him, and the melismatic evil of his siren call to Miles echoed hypnotically around the little auditorium at the climax to Act One. Luke Saint was an insouciant Miles who acted with total focus and sang with great security; while Harriet Jones and Norah King were outstanding as Flora and Miss Jessel respectively, making the most of the opera’s two underwritten roles. Only Sara Gonzales Saavedra (as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper) was miscast: the part sits uncomfortably in her range and her accented English was at odds with the period language she had to articulate.
The evening began well with an exceptionally long-breathed Prologue, delivered by Spence in full Quint regalia. Director Max Key took Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne route in relocating the opera to the 1950s, which meant that the ghost was addressing us in the 21st Century. Key exploited the ramshackle Arcola environment to suggest a derelict Bly where the only living things were weeds that had forced their way through the flooring over time. Sadly, once that promising concept had been established the production lost its way in a succession of ghost-story clichés and several moments of embarrassment such as the faux-eerie use of hand-held electric torches under chins. I refuse to believe it was Rick Fisher, a top lighting designer, who countenanced such a naff idea.
The new Arcola Theatre proved a bit of a squeeze even for Britten’s little orchestra, and a whole bank of seats had had to be removed to accommodate the 13 players. Like the production as a whole, the players spilled over into every available cranny, with the pianist sharing her keyboard with Miles during the Act Two piano scene. The players were excellent and it should have been thrilling to hear Britten’s orchestrations at such close quarters, but unfortunately Thomas Blunt’s tempos were irredeemably sluggish throughout – a factor that stunted the onstage performances and left this Screw several turns short of tight.