Britten Opera Performance Dedicated to Sir Colin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Turn of the Screw (concert performance): Soloists, Members of the London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Farnes (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.4.2013 (CC)

Prologue/Peter Quint – Andrew Kennedy
The Governess – Sally Matthews
Mrs Grose – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Miles – Michael Clayton-Jolly
Flora – Lucy Hall
Miss Jessel – Katherine Broderick

There was always going to be an aura of loss about this concert, both in the sad passing of the LSO’s president, Sir Colin Davis (1927-April 14, 2013), and also in the sense of loss of him as conductor of this performance. Davis’ Decca recording of Peter Grimes (Covent Garden) is an established operatic classic, featuring Jon Vickers as Grimes; his Screw, again Covent Garden, features a stunning cast (Philip Langridge, Helen Donath, Heather Harper, Robert Tear). Oh, what would he have done here?

Eloquent tributes prefaced the performance from Lennox McKenzie (chairman and subleader of the LSO) and Kathryn McDowell (Managing Director). Davis’ links with the LSO are firm indeed (eleven years as Principal Conductor before becoming President in 2007); inevitably, this performance was dedicated to Davis’ memory. The minute’s silence was impeccably, respectfully observed.

Davis it was who had chosen Turn of the Screw to open the LSO’s celebrations of the Britten centenary. Richard Farnes of Opera North had the world on his shoulders as stand-in, although his operatic credentials are fine indeed (one thinks immediately of his Chandos English-language Bluebeard with John Tomlinson and Sally Burgess). In the event his conducting was expert, focused and clean. Inevitably there was the feeling of what would Davis have done with this and, indeed, how much more special would it have been?. Because, for all its expertise, the performance failed to fully take off. The shadowy world of Bly, where children viscerally experience the departed (itself a chilling choice for a memorial performance), where the veil between worlds is thin, is hardly evoked by the harsh spotlights of central London’s Barbican, either. It is a credit to Britten’s scoring for his reduced ensemble of thirteen solo instrumentalists that any of the mystery came across at all. Yet even with such chamber forces, singers still occasionally struggled to get the words across. Neither did Farnes fully enter this world; better by far in this respect were his soloists. This was a shame, as Myfanwy Piper’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella is as masterly as Britten’s music (itself an impeccably delivered set of variations). The piece represents a true meeting of minds between Piper and Britten; a notable performance should resonate in the listener’s psyche for days afterwards. Alas, that was not to be the case here.

Andrew Kennedy is one of the UK’s finest young tenors. His focused voice is perfect for Britten, and his diction is exemplary – something all the more important in his role as narrator in the Prologue. This Prologue is accompanied by piano only. Suzanne Stranders, who in the performance doubles with the otherwordly celesta, seemed less than fully inside her part (but things improved as the evening went on). Kennedy’s assumption of the ghostly (and ghastly) Quint in the opera proper showed another side of his dramatic abilities. Of all the singers, it was Kennedy who came closest to chilling, especially in his seemingly eternally-long melismas on the name “Miles” as he calls the boy from the Other Side.

The choice of Sally Matthews was again perfectly made. Matthews brings freshness of approach and superb clarity to all she touches (her Fiordiligi in Così at the Royal Opera in 2011 was a triumph). The role of Britten’s Governess has to traverse a wide range of emotions, from the nervousness of her approach to Bly to fear and horror. Her act II ‘letter scene” (wherein she reads the letter to the Governor) was positively ravishing, her breath control astonishing; her realisation that “I have failed, most miserably failed” poignantly impassioned. That Matthews was able to embrace this remit was most impressive. Her voice was appropriately womanly, too. A strange comment perhaps, until one appreciates that the Flora, a girl, was taken by a young woman, Lucy Hall (a 2010 Guildhall graduate, which surely makes her early twenties at least). But Hall’s voice is lighter, and close your eyes and she could indeed be much younger. Her singing (and the occasional snippet of acting) was excellent, though. It was believable that she was the ‘other’ child. But if Kennedy and Matthews were stars of the performance, so too, and perhaps more so, was Michael Clayton-Jolly as the boy Miles. Clayton-Jolly seemed to show no trace of nerves in a role that carries huge responsibility. His cries of “I am good” were unutterably poignant, his shout of “Peter Quint, you devil” heartstopping.

As Miss Jessel, Quint’s ghostly partner, Katherine Broderick was a touch more variable. Her Erda-like “why did you call me from my schoolroom dreams?” was a thought-provoking reading of Britten’s question, but her delivery of the crucial “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” rather lacked weight, given the resonances of this line. The experienced Catherine Wyn-Rogers was the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, an assumption of huge confidence and dramatic presence.

The presence of microphones gave hope for an LSO Live issue of these performances (there was also an earlier performance on the Tuesday). For the singing alone, this should be put down for posterity. It will also stand as a fine sonic epitaph/tribute for Sir Colin.

Colin Clarke