The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

HGO: A mostly unerring Turn of the Screw eerily haunts the Wortham - Amanda Roocroft (HGO debut), Andrew Kennedy - Neil Armfield production

Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to paraphrase Neil Armfield, represents (stasis of) being in a most utopian sense caught in a state of childhood (purity and) innocence. Armfield very successfully produced Midsummer Night's Dream here a year ago. Both enclosed within, handed out openly is ideal of being free of the corruption by adult world all about – Dream construed as oasis or Eden amidst a very dry or arid land.

After catharsis like Turn of the Screw, it should be. Houston Grand Opera scheduled the appearance of these two pieces, a year apart, in flip order, leaving so to speak (paraphrasing Peter Quint) 'ceremony of innocence all drowned' at last. Midsummer Night’s Dream exquisitely blossoms out within the oeuvre of Benjamin Britten, and vice versa, became the flip side of this setting of Henry James. The simplicity with which Neil Armfield approaches the operas of Britten remains paramount here. Such remains a virtue for what is the shortest of three taken on so far here but also the most complex of them in numerous ways. In it is quite a challenge, and if not met here in all aesthetic ways possible, still a very strong attempt at it. Numerous elements to this Turn of the Screw made it very well worth going to see it.

HGO music director Patrick Summers was at the helm. With orchestra involving fourteen musicians, he at times could be found only as strong as his weakest link. Weak links - every participant in this a soloist - out of HGO orchestra ranks, were not too numerous - just sufficient to be distracting. Even though the magic of Screw is of a very dark and sinister quality, none of this element should be rendered neutral at all, there also being those episodes composed to sound innocuous instead.

As cited in Phyllis Howard’s commentary on Turn of the Screw (Cambridge), the work came under a little drubbing by the composer Malipiero for leaving all the scoring for this opera precariously exposed. Strongest in this ensemble were the playing of Elisabeth Priestley (oboe), Dennis Whitaker (double-bass), Barrett Sills (cello), Sarah Cranston (horn) and also Bethany Self (keyboards). Weakest were first, second violins, including HGO concertmaster Denise Tarrant, flute, and percussion (two players).

Gian Francesco Malipiero mentioned acute need for each part to havee to register at or near height of its expressive potential for (the) chamber music scoring to work; he construed this unable to match realistic expectations. Such became true when command of one’s instrument with Britten’s purposefully awkward writing became tentative.

Even though Britten uses tone rows, here the central row based on ascending perfect fourths in whole tone spelling for his theme and variations structure, his adaptation of such is not serial. This is so, even while manipulating tone centers half-tones apart. Even so, his development of his material is interwoven, complex laced with much symbolism. There is even some of what is called a hard kernel to some of the musical symbolism that must be heard, even if subconsciously, for this music to fire off on all cylinders. Enough of what element was here to make the HGO Turn of the Screw effective; still more on part of Summers and his players one would hope could have been possible. Acute ear for balances and interaction between varied activities going on was lacking, especially with gaps in playing quality from a handful of soloists therein.

Patrick Summers, when not hamstrung by limitations listed above, has come a good part of the way in coming to grips with Britten’s complex vision here. He made mostly good choice of tempos, moving the action forward well, and drew out of Britten’s music many of its numerous colors and implications. However, there were a number of moments that sounded pushed – some of for instance Peter Quint’s melismatic sextuplet lines, when doubled by orchestral players – played in rhythmic space at times for what might fit five sextuplets instead of six – during finale to Act One but not there alone. Due in part to dull flute playing, contrast in color between opposing sonorities of a pristine nocturnal D Major and encroaching sinister A-Flat tritone below (or from below) was compromised in scene (‘The Tower’) during which Peter Quint is first sighted. Duet for horn and celesta was introspectively very effective for one of the opera's more expansive interludes (called variations). Extended mostly unaccompanied solo for oboe (Priestley) with sinister insinuations from double-bass also fully made its impact.

Some high raising of arms in the air in what Summers turned into a somewhat scherzo-esque close to the scene immediately preceding variation and closing scene - passacaglia for final scene closing out the theme and variations design to the whole opera - exacerbated instead of effectively raising dramatic tension to anticipate the finale. All fortunately did cumulatively come together as building toward what resulted in the harrowing final moments of this opera. That Summers indeed has at least some ear for what goes on here became evident during the playing of very icy sonorities from string harmonics toward end of Act One and incisive staccato for ‘atonal’ leaning fugato interlude midway through Act Two.

Neil Armfield was most deft at finding just the proper amount of space between rear mirror laden casements for ghosts to appear and then often descend out of view, often walking backwards. Not just as path of least resistance, Armfield deftly chose to leave it up to the viewer how to halfway correctly interpret what is going on. With such there was certailnly neither ambiguity betrayed nor explanation added, solution found that perhaps not even Britten or his librettist may have intended for us to have. Costuming was period, most effective with the billowing dress in which one found Miss Jessel and that for boy Miles - with how light from rear would hit him as covered in long white nightshirt and also in making procession in front of mirrors costumed in purple robe with Flora in white.

Moving of casements around on stage between scenes - even as tightly encroaching on quartet of singing actors at one point - was unerringly effective. Some subtle emphasis could perhaps have been found however, for early scenes of nursery rhymes for Miles and Flora, with for comic relief just the playfulness of these scenes emphasized, that music here was left alone to provide. It is perhaps churlish to mention since better perhaps to do nothing instead of too much some other ways in handling such passages.

A long crumpled sheet of iridescent fabric supplied river or symbolism thereof for the set in an uncannily effective way. Especially the dramatic rolling back of it at end of scene where Flora, while being taken away by Mrs Grose, claims to be able to see nothing of any ghosts haunting the Governess was quite a coup de theatre. A flaring purplish red with which it showed up once or twice, as opposed to a dull gray as it first appeared made for great contrast in both what one would expect and to dark coloration all about. Contrast between sets for the first two scenes of Act Two was also very effective. For colloquy between the two ghosts - the tall mirror casements are quite oppressively to front of the stage, light smoke billowing forth from behind. ‘The Bells’ featured ample semblance of normalcy with fine wide-angle view of most of the stage and clear lighting.

In terms of interaction between characters, most of this was also effective – with what challenge it might pose to make the children appear possessed. Both Andrew Kennedy (Peter Quint) and Tamara Wilson (Miss Jessel) looked malevolent – with it being left subjective how much of such malevolence, if any at all, should be perceived by anybody else, either on or off stage – Neil Armfield’s way of showing complete respect.

Amanda Roocroft made probably the most important HGO debut for 2009-2010 here thus far as the Governess. Her command of musical idiom was absolutely complete. Her revealed a woman certainly rattled, slightly unnerved by presence of evil at Bly (country house at which most of this takes place), but a bit blandly to make some of the neurosis of the Governess subdued; this may have been on purpose. With warm tone, she encompassed the vocal range of this part with ease, Roocroft made count the doting, overweening characteristics of the Governess toward Miles especially. During ‘The Tower”, so evocative of night, she floated what are on the surface her calm lines over crest of high B-Flat with fine ease, while expressively giving hint of inner agitation - obvious why moments later with first sighting of Peter Quint.

Accompaniment for the Governess’s musings (just past start of Act 2), “Lost in my labyrinth,” sounded a little more like a scramble from especially upper strings than it should. Roocroft made quasi-heroic, with clearly suggesting absence of stable basis for it, the Governess's confidence in rescuing Miles. She then moments later made so distraught her quoting his mysterious song, ‘Malo’, right before last curtain fell.

Judith Forst was the dramatically involved Mrs Grose, as character ineffective, passive toward hope of curbing the Governess’s neuroses, but singing a part lying slightly high for her at this stage of her career. Her “Dear God, is there no end,” refrain starting and re-starting arioso during fifth scene (“The Window”), carried sufficient force, but with percussion underneath (so often unvaried in dynamics) too much louder than doubling violins of her lines for good support to them here.

The last role for HGO studio alumna Tamara Wilson at the Wortham was Amelia in Verdi’s Bsllo in maschera; it obviously stressed her beyond vocal capacity to sustain it. For Roocroft being also lyric - the Ballo Amelia not quite being suitable for her either - Roocroft projected more loudly than Wilson singing together with her - Wilson the brighter on top. The intelligence of Wilson in having avoided doing much damage by engaging in such previous misadventure became obvious in her fine limning of Miss Jessel here. Standing next to Andrew Kennedy, a definitive Peter Quint, Wilson was undaunted here in having to cover a wide range - with need to project well throughout. She elicited too a decent ear for the odd intervals and spacing in her part while making the menace of her text so elaborately set to music count also. With Kennedy having to opt for something more subtle, Wilson’s Miss Jessel was the more obviously menacing figure on stage for this. Wilson’s tone for low notes had the right covered, dark quality in contrast with much brighter sound on top. With decent legato at last she capitalized fully on making all her lines count here, each of them with what punch she could give them.

Matching Wilson vigorously was Joelle Harvey as Flora. Harvey conveyed the manner of a young girl with her petite appearance on stage, but vocally revealed some real carrying power that at times betrayed vocal maturity to extent one practically had to suspend disbelief. Her gangly acting and countenance went much distance in making up for such lapse – conveying some hope too of Flora being able to stand up to situation all about.

By way of contrast was the obviously more passive Miles of Michael Kepler Meo. One saw through Meo definitely the more brooding, introverted child from among the two - and appearing the more possessed throughout. In spectral manner, tone was often covered to the point of being slightly too reserved. A few notes failed to quite adequately speak beyond the footlights. He had to have on purpose projected a somewhat resinous, hollow tone, almost as to resemble wooden (alto) flute in low register; his doing so conveyed much mystery. With Miles eventually put on the defensive, he made his lines take on all clarity and incisive attack necessary.

Guiding many of his steps through this was the chilling Peter Quint of Andrew Kennedy, much of which played as simply though deceptively innocuous at least up until near - at least while in company of others - point he goads Miles to steal the letter. From starting as Prologue, Kennedy’s clarity of line and with text, making all speak most effectively, was absolutely first-rate. He sounds like a high baritone at times, but with free extension up fairly high – never going excessively so here – projecting with fine ease and subtle variety some very artful writing in so many melismas, chains of sextuplets. He disallowed being rushed too much through this, as to otherwise deny himself full shape to such passages. He was heard acoustically placed on stage and off in subtle variety of ways engaging such – considering the varied multicultural allotment of sources upon which Britten drew for writing Peter Quint. His timbre and artistry would suit his ideally being cast here as Pelleas for Debussy HGO has never yet staged before. We would do well to attempt bringing Kennedy here for a full evening of recital as well.

With several changes to orchestral personnel and a little more rehearsal, familiarity with this work, it would be interesting to hear what better stab Summers might make at Turn of the Screw, toward making it a more complete experience. One would ideally seek something still more specifically eerie out of this than felt already at Wortham Center this week – so much that Britten acutely points out in his scoring in manifold subtle ways.

Guiding hands and voices of especially the malevolent Peter Quint (Andrew Kennedy) and of the Governess (Amanda Roocroft), in addition to the fine staging excellently compensated toward leading this where it should go. I surmise too their influence abetted Tamara Wilson toward making Miss Jessel so sinister as she accomplished here. It was such, should be that Turn of the Screw, Neil Armfield and his cast of his players all leave us, via intended psychological murk throughout, asking more questions than finding answers.

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