People don’t go to the opera to be frightened. We might love a good ghost story and, whether we like it or not, the uneasy fear on which they draw is bound to get us all. Director Timothy Coleman comes, as he says himself, from a background of theatre, and for him opera is all about “telling a story”. And what a story he and his team (Katie Jeffries- Harris and Tomos Watkins) have picked for
their second operatic endeavour at Oxford. The Turn of a Screw is the story of Miles and Flora, two children whom their uncle has left to the care of a governess and a housekeeper in Bly House, an old estate with uncertain history. Soon it becomes clear, that the four of them are not alone in the house.
The plot contains enough ingredients of fear already: an old house, two little children and a governess’ insecurity in the face of this situation. On top of these come the typical features of twentieth-century music, a certain abruptness, a very fine texture of melody and accompaniment and the luring fall into atonality, through which Britten brings the music in sync with the mystique and suspense of the story itself.
But the production’s merit in enticing the audience into the characters’ fears is immense. It begins with the director’s choice to do away with synopses, which can only be one of two things: either a sign of his immense trust in our knowledge of Henry James or, which I think is more likely, a means to commit us to the stage in front of us.
The church as a performance space has become somewhat of a convention in opera at Oxford and the reasons are as simple as they are ingenious. The singers have a natural microphone in the resonance and even a small orchestra can immerse the entire audience space in their harmonies without coming off as a chamber orchestra. But in a church, vision and acoustics distorted, fear can break the fourth wall and creep into the benches. That isscary.
Standing out from the orchestra of excellent soloists, conducted by Tomos Watkins, was the piano part (James Orrell), which plays such an integral part of the drama at various points throughout the opera, supporting and emulating the characters’ emotional dispositions. But at all points, the harmony between the cast and the orchestra was exemplary. Sonia Jacobson’s interpretation of an emotionally confused governess came out in her direct and strong soprano, which contrasted nicely with the more elusive tenor of Guy Withers as Quint.
Particular highlights of the cast were Emily Coatsworth (13) as Flora and Danny Wymbs (12) as Miles, whose singing belies their age. The perfection of their performances pays tribute not only to their natural gift to see through the musical surface to the crux of an operatic scene, but also to the great efforts of both Coleman and the older singers to guide them along.
Via the combination of a Baroque opera and a modern piece at the edge of its genre, I was quite literally kept on the edge of my seat