I noted in my recent piece on conductors just what a difference the best can make. As if fate wanted to underscore the point, cue Charles Mackerras returning to English National Opera (sadly Saturday was his final night in the pit, though the production gets one more outing on Monday; however, he can still be heard via the iPlayer for the next six days).
Despite his long association with the ENO and its predecessor, having started out there as second oboe in 1947 when first came to the UK and been music director in the 70s, he has conducted there fairly infrequently in recent years, working much more at Covent Garden. His last visit, in 2006, saw a new production of Janacek's Makropulos Case. While the orchestra played their socks off, the production was, to say the least, flawed (Mackerras himself has slated it), most notably in its baffling changes to the text - the titular document clinging to Marty's fingers like flypaper at the end, to name just the most egregious.
This time he turned his hand to Britten's The Turn of the Screw. It often seems routine to note Mackerras's expertise with yet another composer, but that is what one is forced to do once again here: one of the occasions on which he worked with Britten was when he conducted some of the initial run of London performances.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the music is the standout star of the evening. The slimmed down orchestra of ENO played superbly and Mackerras was in complete control of the score, turning in a reading both well paced and wonderfully textured. As ever, he kept a firm grip on the drama, building some powerful climaxes, especially around the Yeats quotation (from The Second Coming) "The ceremony of innocence is drowned" at the start of the second act.
On stage too, things were similarly fine. Diction was never less than decent and normally very good (contrast with the recent Rigoletto) and singing was excellent. Michael Colvin, doubling as both the prologue and the ghostly Peter Quint, blood dripping from his head, was very fine, so too Rebecca Evans as the governess. Ann Murray was well cast too as the ageing housekeeper Mrs Grose. Rounding off the adult cast was Cheryl Barker (who sang the title role in that performance of Makropulos Case) as Miss Jessel.
Two of the key roles are children. This can sometimes present a problem, as finding young children who can act and sing well, particularly in such a vast house, is no mean feat. But just try telling that to Charlie Manton (one of two boys alternating in the role of Miles) who at times nearly stole the show with an unsettling performance and even managed not to look silly miming at the piano. He was partnered with Nazan Fikret as Flora. While she made her debut in the role when she was just twelve, that was very nearly a decade ago. However, she managed to look and act convincingly younger than her years and sang well.
David McVicar's production was for the most part successful. I am on the fence about the leaves strewn about the stage. Doubtless that helps it double for both the interior and exterior of the country house and, when the former, lends it a nicely decayed feel. However, I suspect the sound of feet crunching through them will be quite annoying on the radio broadcast. On the other hand, they worked superbly when Quint pulled Jessel up through them, or rather the trapdoor they obscured, at the start of the second act, and then more chillingly so when the children buried the doll in them. Other than that, its main feature was four large panels that slid back and fourth horizontally across the stage. Designed to look like windows, at times they were excellent, such as when partially revealing the ghosts. Unfortunately, in the first act they were rather over-used and did at times make the country house look rather too much like a conservatory. The first act over-use was exacerbated by the fact that the second one from the front was either being badly winched by its operator or badly need some oil, as it clunked back and forth very noisily. Such technical things, when done right, should be invisible (or, in this case, inaudible). The black back wall, which slid about to reveal a blindingly lit cyclorama in various interesting ways, from shrinking squares to thin slits, was perhaps, more successful.
While it shouldn't be necessary, it's worth praising it for not actively getting in the way of the text as seems so often to be the fashion now. A key example would seem to be the sexual subtext, which seemed entirely supported by the text. McVicar also got solid acting performances from the entire cast. Doubly impressive since good acting and singing sadly don't always go together and I can't recall the last time I saw an opera without a weak link in this regard.
Let's hope we don't have to wait three and a half years until Mackerras's next return to ENO.