One of the advantages of the Royal Opera s peripatetic two year existence is that it has the chance to perform works for which its Covent Garden home is unsuitable. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine The Turn of the Screw being staged better anywhere than on the Barbican stage. Its first night was one of the most disturbing, powerful and shattering evenings I have spent at the opera for many years.
Deborah Warner s staging was right in every respect. Apart from some trees, a piano, chalkboard, bed and a few chairs, the space is barren - and the minimalism worked well. Warner s direction of Miles and Flora, the opera s two children, was also refreshing. Opera companies tend to cast these roles as boy soprano opposite a mature soprano. Here, Flora was sung by the ten-year-old Pippa Woodrow and in doing so shifted the whole emphasis of the opera for all the right reasons. Not only did Woodrow sing superbly, as did Edward Burrowes as Miles, but both youngsters became pivotal to the action. Warner realised that for the opera to have its effect, the children must be children. She directed them faultlessly and they behaved like children. Petulant, arrogant, mischievous at a turn - superb!
The rest of the cast were similarly brilliant. Ian Bostridge sang the role of Quint exquisitely (he has the best music in this opera), with an ease of utterance aligned to a chilling edge. Joan Rodgers was an ideal governess; young and sensitive, she moulded Britten s lines with a ravishing beauty of tone. Vivian Tierney infused Miss Jessel s role with almost unbearable poignancy and grief, and Henschel gave one of the finest performances of her career.
Surprisingly, after a lifetime s devotion to Britten s music, this was the first time for Sir Colin Davis to conduct the piece in the theatre. No praise is too high for his conducting, nor the playing of the thirteen soloists in the pit.
Britten s greatest work? After this performance undoubtedly. The silence as the final notes had died away, no-one wanting to break the tension by applauding, said it all. This was one of the Royal Opera s greatest nights. If you believe in the seriousness of opera as dramatic, life-changing art, see this production, if you see nothing else this season.
Keith McDonnell, October 1997