Mystery and Drama
Benjamin Britten's chamber opera
'The Turn of the Screw'
opens the 55th Spoleto Festival,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
The Spoleto Festival (29 June to 15 July 2012) is in its mid-fifties. After a period of decline, in the last five years under the guidance of a new general manager (the stage director Giorgio Ferrara) it is climbing toward new heights. When over half a century ago, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti raised American and Italian money to start it, the 'Two Worlds Festival' -- that is its official name -- was unique in that it provided young US artists the opportunity to perform in Europe. Spoleto is endowed with an elegant four hundred seat theatre within the Duke's Palace, a late nineteenth century nine hundred seat theatre built in the architectural style of La Scala, a few dismissed churches converted into theatres and a well preserved Roman amphitheater. Thus, for two weeks, audience coming from all over can enjoy operas, concerts, plays and what-not. 'Spoleto' became a trade mark. Since 1977 each year, a 'Spoleto Festival' is still operating in Charleston, North Carolina at the end of May. Since 1986, there has been, with ups and downs, a similar festival in Melbourne, Australia.
Thomas Copeland as Miles in Act I of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
In the nineties, a decline started for several reason: a feud between the Menotti family and the Italian authorities, local rivalries with another music festival and, most fundamentally, the growth of other festivals in Central Italy, especially the Ravenna Festival and the Rossini Opera Festival. The 2012 editions of both these festivals will be reviewed in Music & Vision soon.
A scene from Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
In short, the feud has been sorted out and fresh money provided. This year, the Festival features fifty-five different titles and one-hundred-and-six performances over a two week span. They involve two operas (one is in a semi-staged form by the local conservatory), ballet by three companies, several plays, two movie mini-festivals, three major seminars on performing arts and several visual arts exhibitions. Thus, a rich menu.
From left to right: Leonardo Capalbo as Quint, Marie-Adeline Henry as the Governess and Thomas Copeland as Miles in Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
I attended the 27 June 2012 press preview of the main opera, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw -- once more an anticipation of Britten's birth centenary in 2013. The Turn of the Screw was commissioned by the Venice Biennale of Modern Arts and had its premiere at La Fenice in 1954. It is a very well known chamber opera and a standard staple of English National Opera. In the last fifteen years two major productions have toured Italy and many European countries. The former was directed by Luca Ronconi, had its premiere in Turin and was seen in Rome, Cagliari, Parma and other towns. The latter was directed by Luc Bondy and toured most of France and Belgium but was also a major success in Vienna. This time, Giorgio Ferrara took on himself the task of directing the opera and entrusted Gianni Quaranta and Maurizio Galante to design the sets and the costumes.
From left to right: Marie-Adeline Henry as the Governess, Thomas Copeland as Miles, Rosie Lomas as Flora, Hanna Schaer as Mrs Grose and Leonardo Capalbo as Quint in Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
Just a few words on dramaturgy, sets and costumes. As compared with Ronconi's staging (a dark Victorian play echoing Oscar Wilde and his own inner troubles) and with Bondy's production (a Hitchcock thriller in modern times), Ferrara and his associate take inspiration from the much used and abused Arnold Böcklin's symbolic painting on the 'Island of the Death' -- recently featured in such different and diverse operas as Verdi's Macbeth and Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. Thus, The Turn of the Screw becomes a Gothic opera. This is quite far from Henry James' short novel and from Britten's opera on Mayfanwy Piper's libretto. Incidentally, very few opera goers (and reviewers) know that Arnold Böcklin's 'Island of the Death' was one of Adolf Hitler's favorite pictures; in his study, he had one of the several versions Böcklin painted. Henry James, Mayfanwy Piper and especially the peace lover (and deserter) Benjamin Britten would be quite upset to learn that their The Turn of the Screw would be nearly married to the German Führer -- The plot is known: the central point is the conflict between a Governess in charge of two young children and two evil spirits who have 'corrupted' (maybe even sexually) the kids when, still alive, they were employed in the same manor. There is a lot of mystery: it is never clear who corrupted whom and whether the Governess wants to possess the kids. More fundamentally, Britten was a devout Christian and the opera is as much about redemption -- the young Miles dies to defeat the evil spirits and send them back to hell -- as about corruption. The Gothic approach seems to forget it.
Emily Righter as Miss Jessel (left) and Marie-Adeline Henry as the Governess in Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
Musically the production was entrusted to Johannes Debus, a young German conductor who is presently director of the Canadian Opera Company. The cast is almost entirely British or American. This is essential not only due to the importance of understanding each and every word in a thriller mystery drama but due to Britten's emphasis on molding words and notes. Debus' baton was dealing with a very small ensemble from the Milan Verdi Orchestra: thirteen elements (including a celesta) able to give the impression (especially in the interludes) of a medium size symphony orchestra. The singers are six but could be five because the bari-tenor of the Prologue can also sing the role of the evil spirit, Peter Quint -- both roles had generally been sung by Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong companion.
Leonardo Capalbo as Quint (left) and Thomas Copeland as Miles in Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
The small orchestra and cast deal with a unique operatic organization. After a short prologue in a twelve note theme whose intervals rotate in a screw-like fashion, the two acts are symmetrical: each lasts fifty minutes and is made up of eight short scenes. The scenes are linked together by orchestral interludes. They are cast in the form of a theme, the prelude to Act One, Scene One and fifteen variations. The whole opera is contained within this huge sets of variations whose theme (The Screw) determines the shape of the musical inventions in each scene. The role of the celesta is critical: a magical heavenly sound central to the key scenes. An additional reason not to find a Gothic setting appropriate. The ensemble was excellent and compared very favorably with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra who performed The Turn of the Screw in Aix-en-Provence under Daniel Harding's baton. Johannes Debus and the ensemble showed remarkable variety and mood to balance the formal coherence, the spontaneity and freshness of musical ideas within the compact solidity in the form-scheme of each scene.
From left to right: Rosie Lomas as Flora, Emily Righter as Miss Jessel and Thomas Copeland as Miles in Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
The singers were quite good. The protagonist has an impervious role with only a melodic phrase -- Oh! Why did I come? -- which recurs often at various moments of the opera. She is almost always on stage and must reach hard acute. Marie -- Adeline Henry, a French soprano -- handled it well. Quite effective were Hanna Schaer (Mrs Grose) and Emily Righter (the evil spirit Miss Jessel). Marlin Miller sang the short Prologue whilst the main bari-tenor role (the evil spirit Peter Quint) was entrusted to the American Leonardo Capalbo; both had a voice similar to that of Peter Pears. The treble Thomas Copeland, twelve years old, was an excellent Miles. Rosie Lomas (twenty-two) was a credible Flora.
Thomas Copeland as Miles (left) and Marie-Adeline Henry as the Governess in the final scene of Act II of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Spoleto Festival. Photo © 2012 Maria Laura Antonelli. Click on the image for higher resolution
The preview audience applauded warmly.
Copyright © 2 July 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
THE TURN OF THE SCREW
GIAN CARLO MENOTTI
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