25 January 2014

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – THE TURN OF THE SCREW (A. Kennedy, S. Matthews, C. Wyn-Rogers, K. Broderick; LSO Live LSO0749)

Benjamin Britten - THE TURN OF THE SCREW (LSO Live LSO0749)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54—A. Kennedy (Prologue, Peter Quint), S. Matthews (Governess), M. Clayton-Jolly (Miles), L. Hall (Flora), C. Wyn-Rogers (Mrs. Grose), K. Broderick (Miss Jessel); London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Farnes [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Barbican, London, on 16 and 18 April 2013; LSO Live LSO0749; 2 SACD, 110:32; Available from LSO, Presto Classical, Amazon, and major music retailers]

With the publication of his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, Henry James sent shockwaves through the literary establishments in both Britain and the United States.  Reared on the Gothic tales of interaction between the natural and the supernatural epitomized by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, readers on both shores of the Atlantic were little prepared for the enticing psychological complexities of The Turn of the Screw, their meanings elusive but the story’s sickly anxiety inescapably familiar.  Now, more than a century after the first publication of the novella, the implications of James’s uncanny gift for luring the reader into worlds both alien and immediately recognizable remain rewardingly enigmatic.  Rarely in the complementary histories of literature and music have the paths of a work of fiction and the career of an important composer crossed more fortuitously than in the case of James’s The Turn of the Screw and Benjamin Britten.  The composer had been intrigued by James’s story since hearing a radio adaptation as a young man, and a commission from the Venice Biennale for a new opera and an inspiring artistic partnership with Myfanwy Piper compelled Britten to revisit The Turn of the Screw.  However its ambiguities are interpreted, The Turn of the Screw presented Britten with precisely the intellectual setting by which his imagination was most ignited: whether the supernatural forces by which she is assailed exist in a sort of parallel reality or are her own inventions, James’s nameless Governess is in confrontation with society, implicitly ostracized by her employer’s prohibition of contact and her newness at Bly, the Wuthering Heights-type country house at which she plies her trade.  Like Peter Grimes, she has in her care a boy both completely under her control and beyond her reach, a boy in whose ultimate fate both she and the boy himself are complicit and innocent in shifting measures: like Captain Vere in Billy Budd, she is powerful and powerless at once.  Not unlike the Färberin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, she is defined by her circumstances rather than by her own identity, but unlike Strauss’s dyer’s wife there is no obvious resolution for the Governess.  Monster, murderess, mystic, or magnanimous but misguided mother figure, hers is the kind of personality in conflict with itself and its environment that elicited Britten’s most original operatic portraits.  Eminent conductor James Conlon, who led a much-discussed 2011 reincarnation of the Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw at Los Angeles Opera, wrote in The Hudson Review that ‘Britten succeed[ed] not only in perfectly transforming this novel into theatrical form, but also in maintaining the emblematic ambiguity of Henry James.’  This recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, taken from a pair of concert performances at the Barbican, revels in James’s ‘emblematic ambiguity’ and the sublime genius of Britten’s musical metamorphosis of ephemeral atmospheres into striking aural tableaux.

A blessing and a curse with Britten’s operas is that, with the exception of Death in Venice, they were recorded under the composer’s direction, in most cases with the casts for whom Britten composed them.  This is especially true of The Turn of the Screw, which Britten and his English Opera Group recorded in January 1955—only four months after the opera’s première in Venice—with the original cast: Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess, Sir Peter Pears as the Prologue and Peter Quint, Joan Cross as Mrs. Grose, Arda Mandikian as Miss Jessel, Olive Dyer as Flora, and David Hemmings as Miles.  Subsequent recordings have matched but never exceeded the quality of Britten’s own account of the opera, but this performance, taking a different approach than those followed by the composer and successive interpreters, equals the inaugural DECCA recording by examining the score from an alternative perspective.  The Turn of the Screw was Britten’s final ‘chamber opera,’ and the London Symphony Orchestra musicians who participated in the pair of performances that produced this recording—violinists Roman Simovic and David Alberman, violist Paul Silverthorne, cellist Tim Hugh, double bassist Colin Paris, flautist Adam Walker, Sharon Williams on piccolo, oboist Christopher Cowie, Christine Pendrill on cor anglais, clarinetist Chris Richards, bass clarinetist Lorenzo Iosco, bassoonist Rachel Gough, horn player Timothy Jones, timpanist Nigel Thomas, percussionist Neil Percy, harpist Bryn Lewis, and Susanna Stranders on piano and celesta—luxuriate in the innovative, often erotic textures of Britten’s part-writing.  Each player faces an intimidating task, and each player delivers a performance of distinction.  The concerts were originally planned as a vehicle for the return of Sir Colin Davis to a score that he conducted for an arresting Czech film production, the soundtrack of which was recorded in studio by Philips, as well as the opera’s 1997 Covent Garden première, presented in Deborah Warner’s production at the Barbican during the Royal Opera House’s closure for renovations.  After Maestro Davis’s passing, the Turn of the Screw performances were entrusted to Richard Farnes, Music Director of Opera North, and the investment yielded brilliant dividends in a reading of intense focus and unrelenting tension.  Vitally, Maestro Farnes does not view the opera’s chamber-music dimensions as inhibitions to expressions of passion on a grand scale, and he conducts the score with the kind of expansiveness and drive for cumulative impact that he might devote to the operas of Verdi and Wagner.  What is surprising is the facility with which this course leads to an intoxicatingly portentous performance of an episodic score like The Turn of the Screw.  Rather than robbing the opera of its uniquely oppressive atmosphere, Maestro Farnes’s conducting—followed to the letter by the instrumentalists and singers—heightens the Gothic spookiness of Britten’s score in unexpectedly illuminating ways.  Indeed, a splash of Romanticism added to the dry gin of the composer’s carefully-considered musical and dramatic structures makes a dangerously appealing cocktail.

The cast by whom The Turn of the Screw was first performed and recorded set standards that must seem impossibly high to singers coming to the opera today.  If any of the principals in this performance was intimidated by the examples of his or her forebears, there is no evidence of it to be heard.  For a litany of reasons both musical and dramatic, the rôles in The Turn of the Screw that are most difficult to cast are the children, Flora and Miles.  Britten’s musical requirements are quite specific, and while the engagement of adolescent singers is preferable for the sake of dramatic verisimilitude there are often lamentable trade-offs in terms of uncontrolled vocalism and imperfect intonation.  In this performance, no compromises are necessary.  Singing Flora, young soprano Lucy Hall is believably girlish but also a commendably finished singer, the slight maturity of her timbre lending her characterization a bracing haughtiness that gives her lashing out at the Governess the legitimacy of a spoiled child accustomed to being indulged.  Most importantly, Ms. Hall does not condescend to the notion of portraying a young girl, and her singing in Act One’s Scene VII (‘The Lake’) is attractively light-hearted and unnervingly ominous.  In Act Two, as Flora’s disposition sours, Ms. Hall spits out lines like ‘Cruel, horrible, hateful, nasty, we don’t want you!’ with the venom of a provoked viper.  The tonal security of Ms. Hall’s singing makes Flora a much more potent force in the drama, and her performance bristles with burgeoning sensuality.  Treble Michael Clayton-Jolly’s strongly-defined dramatic instincts belie his youth, and his singing also exhibits a maturity beyond his years.  The erotic charge of his singing of the famed ‘Malo’ is startling for such a young singer, but it is the musical assurance of his singing that is the most enjoyable aspect of his performance.  All while singing with firm tone and accuracy of intonation rare for a treble in an operatic rôle, Mr. Clayton-Jolly interacts with his colleagues with the surety of a veteran actor.  This Miles’s exchanges with the Governess are tinged almost from the start with suggestions of impropriety, and the heady emotional engagement of Mr. Clayton-Jolly’s performance provides countless moments of rather smug duplicity.  This Miles has the capacity to be an enemy to every other character in the opera, in fact, and the faculty with which Mr. Clayton-Jolly alternates between puerile wonder and very adult disingenuousness is virtually unprecedented in recorded performances of The Turn of the Screw.  Not even the unforgettable David Hemmings, hand-picked by Britten to create Miles, sang the part so well.

Like their younger cast mates, mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and soprano Katherine Broderick give towering performances as Mrs. Grose, Bly’s hard-nosed but sympathetic housekeeper, and Miss Jessel, the apparition of the children’s former governess.  Widely-acclaimed for her work in concert, recital, and opera, Ms. Wyn-Rogers is audibly a younger Mrs. Grose than those in many performances, and this fits perfectly with the overall concept of this production.  Singing strongly and securely throughout the performance, Ms. Wyn-Rogers cleverly maximizes the importance of her rôle by altering the colorations of her voice depending upon whether she is in the company of the children or with the Governess alone.  As the performance progresses and Mrs. Grose warms to the Governess, Ms. Wyn-Rogers softens her timbre, but the edge of barely-concealed disquietude remains.  Ms. Broderick’s Miss Jessel is an unsettling creation, a spirit of earth and fire rather than of air and mist.  In order to be completely successful, a portrayal of Miss Jessel must have at least a modicum of attractiveness.  Ms. Broderick’s singing lends the part considerably more than that, the natural pulchritude of her voice counting for much in Miss Jessel’s come-hither blandishments to Quint.  The tingling timbre of her calling to Flora is marvelously sultry, further distilling the uncertainty of the opera’s symbolism.  Like Ms. Wyn-Rogers, Ms. Broderick sings powerfully and voluptuously.

After singing the Prologue with disturbing calmness, setting the stage for the drama to follow as though collisions of the real and surreal were as ordinary as tea and scones, tenor Andrew Kennedy gives a performance of Peter Quint that stays in the mind long after the music has ended.  Disturbing, maddening, and vehemently sexy, his singing streaks through the performance with white-hot ferocity and the unrelenting attention of a hunter with his eyes on his mark.  Mr. Kennedy’s singing of passages such as ‘I am the smooth world’s double face, Mercury’s heels feathered with mischief and a God’s deceit’ is indescribably beautiful, his tone flashing like polished gold and his phrasing otherworldly but totally logical.  The part’s famous melismatic passages, so singularly sung by Sir Peter Pears, are spun by Mr. Kennedy with bel canto poise, the elongated vowels benefiting from the singer’s superb breath control.  The coy familiarity of this Quint’s dealings with Miss Jessel leaves little doubt that there was fraternization among Bly’s below-stairs denizens.  Simultaneously disgusting and intriguing, Mr. Kennedy’s Quint’s toying with Miles is almost obscene in its latent sexuality, but the honeyed comeliness of Mr. Kennedy’s singing transforms Quint’s insinuated pederasty into something shockingly touching: the sense of longing in Quint’s exchanges with Miles exudes connection beyond carnal desire and the thrill of possession.  The combination of Mr. Kennedy’s dulcet tones with Mr. Clayton-Jolly’s sweet sounds makes the scenes for Quint and Miles seem like conventional operatic love duets rather than unsavory games of cat and mouse.  Most surprisingly, there is a subtle hint of redemption in Mr. Kennedy’s Quint, shaped by the radiance of his upper register.  Quint is a rôle that provides countless interpretive possibilities to thoughtful artists, but few tenors have crafted a portrait of the character as awe-inspiring as Mr. Kennedy manages in this performance.  As so often in opera of any era, the most crucial aspect of this mammoth achievement is the simple splendor of the singing.

The simmering hysteria that lies at the core of Sally Matthews’s Governess is the impetus for a performance of gradual emotional collapse that is an apposite foil to Mr. Kennedy’s Quint.  A Governess who arrives at Bly already in the apparent clutches of psychosis risks upsetting the balance of the drama’s development, and Ms. Matthews’s Governess seems at her first appearance to accept responsibility for Flora and Miles little more than a child herself.  The rapidity with which this Governess’s consciousness expands and unravels is the principal dramatic distinction of Ms. Matthews’s performance.  The fire that flickers in Ms. Matthews’s voice when the Governess sings of Mrs. Grose’s perceived betrayal suggests that this is a young lady who forms unnaturally dependent relationships, and the manner in which Ms. Matthews caresses vocal lines introduces intimations of bizarre, perhaps inappropriate affections for both Miles and Quint.  In a sense, Miles’s death is the consummation of a grotesque ménage à trois, a psychosexual climax for both Quint and the Governess, who seems almost to have taken comfort in Quint’s presence.  Ms. Matthews encounters no difficulties with the tessitura of the Governess’s music, and the wholesome handsomeness of her voice is especially welcome in music that is as frequently screeched as sung.  Like Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Matthews is content to sing passages that other singers have endeavored to ‘interpret,’ and her performance is all the more unique and emotionally splintering for it.

The best operatic performances raise as many questions as they answer, and this performance of The Turn of the Screw—recorded in spacious sound that allows the voices to bloom in a flattering acoustic without permitting the inevitable noises of live performances to intrude into the claustrophobic environs of Bly—succeeds in that regard like no other recording of this chameleonic score.  Richard Farnes proves an enlightened interpreter of Britten’s music by making the deliberate choice to perform this opera like any other and inspiring the London Symphony Orchestra players and singers to do likewise.  Vocally, there is no other Peter Quint quite like Andrew Kennedy, musically or dramatically, and the lyrical effusiveness of his performance prompts an unmistakable unanimity of conviction that elevates a great performance to the sort of theatrical experience that redefines a listener’s perceptions of the music at hand.  A more resplendent memorial to Benjamin Britten on the occasion of his centennial and to the legacy of Sir Colin Davis is impossible to imagine.