13 July 2010

Guest Review: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw
Victorian Opera
9 July 2010
Playhouse, The Arts Centre
to July 17
www.ticketmaster.com.au

Review by Josephine Giles


Based on a Henry James short story, The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story with a twist. An impressionable young governess comes to Bly to look after two children who, it transpires, are being haunted by two evil ghosts. Or are they? Full of ambiguity, the story gifts to a director ample opportunity for flights of the imagination. Unfortunately this production, while chocker-block full of solid performances, remains earthbound.

Good things first. For this production Victorian Opera has engaged respected Britten expert Paul Kildea to conduct. Under Kildea’s sensitive and nuanced direction Orchestra Victoria responds in kind, with extra fine playing from the woodwind providing an atmospheric diversion from the emptiness on stage.

On stage, the youthful troupe of singers is, for the most part, well cast. As the highly strung Governess, Danielle Calder impresses with accomplished singing and a committed and convincing character. Maxine Montgomery as Mrs Grose sings with her customary assurance, while Melanie Adams (Mrs Jessel) is attractive but underpowered.

As the young charges Takshin Fernando (Miles) and Georgina Darvidis (Flora) are clear and engaging. Full marks should also go to Fernando for the most convincing miming ever of piano-playing in Act II.

 As the Narrator and the dastardly Peter Quint, James Egglestone is a perfect fit. His clear tenor is well suited to Britten’s music, and his impeccable diction and easy physicality add value to the package.

To the not-so-good. The Turn of the Screw is a sparse piece that is here staged with austerity. An almost empty stage is occupied by a Victorian style doll’s house, and the odd piece of furniture which is moved on and off to indicate a change of scene. Lighting is dim, to underline the action taking place in twilight, coupled with a black backdrop that sucks the life from the action. Lights in the doll’s house (spooky!), indicate changing times of day, but are inconsistent with the number of projected windows on the stage floor. The ghosts first appear in recesses in the back wall that look like, well, boxes; we know Flora is by a lake because she tells us while standing near a puddle of blue light, and the Governess must be walking in the garden because she is wandering around a stage lit with dappled leaves. I could go on. Suffice to say the direction and design lack imagination, and misuse the device of minimalism to ultimately convey very little in the way of atmosphere.

As with practically anything operatic these days, projected titles are used. In heavily orchestrated pieces sung in English their use can be justified. But for the lightly orchestrated The Turn of the Screw, in this theatre, and with this calibre of singers, their presence is an unnecessary distraction. The titles are situated at either side of the stage and just catch ones peripheral vision, making it impossible to focus on the singers (who are all perfectly understandable). To stop going mad, you end up giving up and looking away from the stage to read the titles and thus lose any immersion in the drama.

For its scale and contemporary subject matter The Turn of the Screw is a good repertoire choice for the Victorian Opera. The work is a perfect vehicle for the young singers promoted by the company, but this production, while strong musically, just misses the dramatic mark. The Turn of the Screw continues at the Playhouse till July17.Based on a Henry James short story, The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story with a twist. An impressionable young governess comes to Bly to look after two children who, it transpires, are being haunted by two evil ghosts. Or are they? Full of ambiguity, the story gifts to a director ample opportunity for flights of the imagination. Unfortunately this production, while chocker-block full of solid performances, remains earthbound.

Good things first. For this production Victorian Opera has engaged respected Britten expert Paul Kildea to conduct. Under Kildea’s sensitive and nuanced direction Orchestra Victoria responds in kind, with extra fine playing from the woodwind providing an atmospheric diversion from the emptiness on stage.

On stage, the youthful troupe of singers is, for the most part, well cast. As the highly strung Governess, Danielle Calder impresses with accomplished singing and a committed and convincing character. Maxine Montgomery as Mrs Grose sings with her customary assurance, while Melanie Adams (Mrs Jessel) is attractive but underpowered.

As the young charges Takshin Fernando (Miles) and Georgina Darvidis (Flora) are clear and engaging. Full marks should also go to Fernando for the most convincing miming ever of piano-playing in Act II.

 As the Narrator and the dastardly Peter Quint, James Egglestone is a perfect fit. His clear tenor is well suited to Britten’s music, and his impeccable diction and easy physicality add value to the package.

To the not-so-good. The Turn of the Screw is a sparse piece that is here staged with austerity. An almost empty stage is occupied by a Victorian style doll’s house, and the odd piece of furniture which is moved on and off to indicate a change of scene. Lighting is dim, to underline the action taking place in twilight, coupled with a black backdrop that sucks the life from the action. Lights in the doll’s house (spooky!), indicate changing times of day, but are inconsistent with the number of projected windows on the stage floor. The ghosts first appear in recesses in the back wall that look like, well, boxes; we know Flora is by a lake because she tells us while standing near a puddle of blue light, and the Governess must be walking in the garden because she is wandering around a stage lit with dappled leaves. I could go on. Suffice to say the direction and design lack imagination, and misuse the device of minimalism to ultimately convey very little in the way of atmosphere.

As with practically anything operatic these days, projected titles are used. In heavily orchestrated pieces sung in English their use can be justified. But for the lightly orchestrated The Turn of the Screw, in this theatre, and with this calibre of singers, their presence is an unnecessary distraction. The titles are situated at either side of the stage and just catch ones peripheral vision, making it impossible to focus on the singers (who are all perfectly understandable). To stop going mad, you end up giving up and looking away from the stage to read the titles and thus lose any immersion in the drama.

For its scale and contemporary subject matter The Turn of the Screw is a good repertoire choice for the Victorian Opera. The work is a perfect vehicle for the young singers promoted by the company, but this production, while strong musically, just misses the dramatic mark. 

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com


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