In what turned out to be a very special performance, Sir Charles Mackerras returned to English National Opera to conduct the first revival of David McVicar’s production of Britten’s Henry James' chiller (first seen at the Mariinsky Theatre), retaining three of the original cast who premièred it at the London Coliseum in 2007.
At the end, after Rebecca Evans had brought Sir Charles out onto the stage and Ann Murray had brought the production team out, ENO music director Edward Gardner appeared and presented Sir Charles with a large, cast-signed, framed photo of the production in honour of the conductor’s 61-year history with the company. Gardner mentioned Mackerras’ 65 productions with the company (although the programme referred to his 56 productions) over those years. Incredibly, although he shared conducting honours with Britten in the first revival of The Turn of the Screw, Mackerras conducted the work last in London in 1956, at the Scala Theatre.
So, 53 years on, how did he do? In his brief speech at the end he particularly praised the hard-working orchestra – the 13 members required by Britten representing the company’s excellent band – and they were truly magnificent for him in this extraordinarily solo-suffused score.
But then McVicar’s production is a truly ensemble piece, not only the musicians and singers, but also the six mute cast as Bly’s maids and butlers (reminding us that James’ story is not a story of physical isolation) and, beyond the sparse set open to the view the sides of the stage, to the occasional stagehand working scenery. The production’s success is its ability to both move cinematically between scenes and – despite a virtually wide open stage – inculcate a continuing sense of eeriness to the proceedings.
Perhaps because I’m a firm disbeliever in all things supernatural, I am rarely chilled by James’ tale, but there was definitely a sense of other-worldliness in the clarity of Mackerras’ reading, matched by McVicar’s detailed direction of his cast. Rebecca Evans as the Governess driven to dangerous distraction, Ann Murray as ostrich-like Mrs Grose and Cheryl Barker’s black-clad Miss Jessel return faultlessly to their roles, while Michael Colvin, new to the production, brings a shabby, beleaguered quality to Peter Quint. Perhaps the opening of the second act, with Quint and Jessel writhing like a pair of reptiles from an Attenborough programme was a touch too Grand Guignol, especially with much else of the otherworldly aspect of the tale played down, but the growing control of the children was definitely creepy.
This opening performance featured an old-hand as Miles. Charlie Manton has sung in two productions, as well as understudying the part for Glyndebourne Touring Opera and he received one of the loudest cheers at the end. With his blond hair he seemed to have walked out of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and all credit to his piano-playing imitation! Hugh Beckwith alternates with Manton in future performances. Completing the cast is Nazan Fikret as Miles’ sister Flora. Their singing matched the adults’ clear diction, all true to Britten’s strange and evocative score.
ENO continues its strong tradition of Britten performances with this revival, special particularly because of Mackerras’ involvement.