Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of The Screw triumphs in Budapest

HungaryHungary Britten, The Turn of the Screw: Soloists, instrumentalists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra / Iván Fischer (conductor). MŰPA, Budapest, 10.9.2022. (AK)

Ben Fletcher (Miles) and Andrew Staples (Peter Quint) © Judit Horváth

Co-directors – Iván Fischer and Marco Gandini
Sets Designer – Andrea Tocchio
Costumes Designer – Anna Biagiotti
Lighting – Niels Riefstahl
Special Effects – Nils Corte

Governess – Miah Persson
Mrs Grose – Laura Aikin
Prologue / Peter Quint – Andrew Staples
Miss Jessel – Allison Cook
Miles – Ben Fletcher
Flora – Lucy Barlow

Iván Fisher and his opera company – appropriately named the Iván Fischer Opera Company – and thirteen musicians from his Budapest Festival Orchestra gave an outstanding performance of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in Budapest. They performed the opera twice, 9th and 10th September 2022 respectively; I attended the second performance.

Sadly, as well as astonishingly, this great opera – arguably one of Britten’s most notable masterpieces – seems to be largely unknown in Hungary. I spoke to several colleagues from the music profession, none has ever heard the piece. Talking to members of the audience at the performance which I attended, a similar picture emerged. Clearly, Fischer did great service by programming the piece, let alone the exceptional quality of the performance.

The opera was staged in MŰPA’s concert hall, with some 1500 audience capacity. (MŰPA stands for the splendid vészetek Palotája, Palace of the Arts, but in practice it has become an independent word to signify the majestic building.)

Before attending the performance, I was wondering why this hall, why not the actual theatre in the same building with a third of the audience capacity. The Turn of the Screw is a chamber opera for six singers and thirteen instrumentalists. Two of the solo singers are children: all the more reason, I thought, to use the smaller theatre environment in order to help good projection. However, the concert hall has exceptional acoustics, all six singers were outstanding (with crystal clear projection) and the hall was filled to capacity.

Queen Elizabeth II passed away on Thursday 8th September and although unintended, what wonderful tributes to the late Queen these performances turned out to be! Late in life Benjamin Britten received much support from the Queen.

After completing his opera Death in Venice, in 1973 the 60-year-old Britten had heart surgery and suffered a stroke. He survived but was greatly weakened; composing did not seem to be an option. However, in 1975, Queen Elizabeth II persuaded Britten to compose again; the result was a set of songs for tenor and harp. The cantata Phaedra and the Third String Quartet followed before Britten’s untimely death in 1976.

The Turn of the Screw, Britten’s last chamber opera, was written within a four-month period in 1954. It is complex but tightly structured with mathematical precision yet allowing the drama (of Henry James’s ghost story) to unfold with beauty, excitement and even with folk song elements. The orchestral theme in twelve-tone tonality (or atonality?) is elaborated in fifteen orchestral variations throughout – theme and seven variations in Act I, eight variations in Act II – but always allowing the vocal scenes to join as integral ingredients. There are eight scenes in Act I, eight scenes in Act II; with both acts designed to take fifty minutes.

Listening in the theatre – or concert hall in this case – does not bring to mind the astonishing mathematical precision of Britten’s planning. What is evident is the exciting drama, the many layered tonal colour scheme, the musical characterisation of the people and ghosts, and – last but not least – the gut drenching beauty.

What made this performance perfect was the musicality and brilliance of all six singers, the virtuosity of the thirteen instrumentalists tackling Britten’s demanding score and Iván Fischer’s evident decision to let the score speak for itself. He did not impose egoistic authority on the score but guided his performers with evidently secure hands. I could not see him, as the orchestral pit was slightly lower than the first rows of the audience, but I could hear what clearly was the respectful and skilful tackling of Britten’s marvellous but complex score. Furthermore, Fischer being one of the two directors for staging the opera, musical and dramatic concepts were in perfect harmony.

With one exception, the singers were singing in their mother tongue and from her exemplary diction and projection one would not notice Miah Persson’s Swedish origins. She owed her part (The Governess), as were all singers similarly fully integrated in their roles.

Ben Fletcher (Miles) and Lucy Barlow (Flora) © Judit Horváth

With humble apologies to the four adults (Miah Persson, Laura Aikin, Andrew Staples and Allison Cook), I want to emphasise the mind-blowing brilliance of Ben Fletcher (Miles) and Lucy Barlow (Flora). 12-year-old Fletcher and 11-year-old Barlow ticked all the boxes: vocal projection, musicality, pitch, rhythm, drama; they were fully at home in their solos as well as in the various ensembles they were parts of. More or less on stage throughout the opera, their concentration was faultless. They even produced humour within complicated ensemble work: they were singing and performing their traditional English nursery rhymes (‘Lavender’s Blue’, ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’) against complicated polyphony, as if they were really playing games, with no worries whatsoever. Miles’s Malo song (The Lesson, Act I, Scene 6) was sung by Fletcher with heart-breaking beauty, while he later astonished with his immaculate imitation of playing the long, technically demanding and important piano part (The Piano, Act II, Scene 6). I had to watch/listen very carefully to be sure whether it was really Fletcher playing or pianist Emese Mali in the pit, just slightly lower than the stage.

The open stage design and directions were in the excellent hands of Marco Gandini (co-director with Iván Fischer), Anna Biagiotti (costume designer), Andrea Tocchio (set designs), Niels Riefstahl (lighting) and Nils Corte (special effects). With no curtains in the concert hall, lighting indicated curtains up and down. The stage seemed to have been divided into three parts, at least this is what I perceived where I was sitting, but then subdivided or just changed when Britten’s scene changes indicated. We had the real people of the plot on the stage but, with the aid of special effects, also ghosts when the music and text so indicated. The overriding theme was, as in Fischer’s interpretation, to allow Britten’s score to dominate with all its beauty, humour and sadness. Textual clarity was provided by English and Hungarian surtitles.

The Turn of the Screw was premiered on 14th September 1954 in the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, under the composer’s direction. Iván Fischer is taking his production – with cast as described above – to Vicenza in the Venetian region, sixty kilometres west of Venice. They will be performing on 21st and 23rd October 2022, within Fischer’s Vicenza Opera Festival.

The Turn of the Screw returns to Venice …almost.

Agnes Kory

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