Britten – The Turn of the Screw
The Governess – Layla Claire
Miles – Tom Deazley
Flora – Tabitha Tucker
Mrs Grose – Hedwig Fassbender
The Prologue/Peter Quint – Pavol Breslik
Miss Jessel – Giselle Allen
Philharmonia Zürich / Constantin Trinks.
Stage director – Jan Eßinger
Opernhaus Zürich, Zürich. Sunday, November 16th, 2014.
Tonight was the last evening of a three-night opera trip that took me to Copenhagen, Frankfurt and now to Zürich. What each house had in common is that I had never visited them previously. When the cast for this Turn of the Screw was announced, I knew immediately that it was a show that I really wanted to see. The combination of the superb Slovak tenor, Pavol Breslik, and fabulous Penticton, BC soprano Layla Claire was one that I did not want to miss. Tonight was certainly worth the journey.
The Opernhaus Zürich is a gem of a theatre. Seating only 1200 people it has an intimacy which is really quite captivating. Seat prices reflect the strength of the Swiss Franc but there are a good number of more economical seats and there are selected evenings scattered throughout the season where tickets are offered at a subsidized rate. These go on sale one month before. When picking up tickets, one needs to collect a number from the machine – there was a lady confused by this system – and the coat check is free.
Tonight’s performance was a new production directed by Jan Eßinger based on a concept by Willy Decker. It was a fascinating staging. The stage constantly revolved which allowed the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel to appear seemingly from nowhere – one moment they were there, another gone. The set represented two rooms and a black curtain descended during the interludes while the stage was rearranged. Interestingly as Quint called Miles towards the end of Act 1 this happened from behind the curtain and the effect was captivating, a disembodied voice coming from nowhere. There were sexual undertones too that were hinted at but never made explicit. At the end of the Prologue the Governess looks as if she is about to kiss Quint and later on, it seems that Miss Jessel has her head close to Quint’s genitalia. Relationships were sharply drawn and the Personenregie was excellent. There was a sparseness to the stage pictures which worked exceptionally well and allowed the singers to carry the performances. It all felt so absolutely right. One thing that was really noticeable was the clarity of diction of the entire cast. The German and English surtitles were really quite superfluous. The cast was coached by Nicholas Chalmers and he really did a superb job not only in ensuring not only that the diction was crystal clear but also in ensuring a unanimity of approach to the pronunciation of the English text throughout the cast.
It was sung by a cast of outstanding singer-actors. Layla Claire is a major talent and one I hope that we will be hearing a lot more of. The voice is a good size and has a creaminess and ease of production that is startling. It carries well and sounds incredibly healthy. The top of the voice has a real sheen that is glorious to listen to. She is also an excellent actress. She fully entered into the character of the Governess and was completely believable, as indeed was the whole cast.
Pavol Breslik’s Peter Quint was exceptional. He proved himself to be a Britten tenor of the very highest level. The fact that Breslik understands his instrument and how to use it is a given, but he gave us a Quint that was so mellifluous in tone, where the voice sounded so easy, that it really was something very special. The way he combined the lyricism of his singing with a strong body of tone was quite remarkable. His stage presence as a dangerous yet magnetic character was utterly captivating. I very much hope that he will give us his Captain Vere or perhaps even his Grimes at some point. He and Claire sang their roles like they had been written for them.
The remainder of the cast was likewise at this extremely high level. Hedwig Fassbaender was a world-weary Mrs Grose. The voice had a metallic quality to it, especially at the top, but she nailed the character of the housekeeper to perfection. Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel seemed slightly underpowered at first, the voice not quite as penetrating as her colleagues but she quickly filled out the tone and gave us both eloquent singing and a harrowing stage presence. The children, Tabitha Tucker and Tom Deazley were absolutely superb. They were completely devoted the staging and had memorized its intricacies perfectly – Deazley’s miming of Miles’ piano playing was perfectly in sync with his colleague in the pit – and were vocally superb.
Constantin Trinks’ conducting of the soloists of the Philharmonia Zürich was equally superb. There was a logic and fluency to his conducting that was captivating. The whole evening was ideally paced and played with the utmost virtuosity.
This was an evening that just felt absolutely right. Sung at the very highest level in a staging that illuminated the work in a highly intelligent and original way, this was an evening that fully realized the horror of Britten and Piper’s version of Henry James’ story. It was an evening that felt so absolutely right. The production was intelligent and logical, the singing exceptional. At the end the audience showed their appreciation with extensive cheers. I just wanted to sit in silence – such was the impact of this show that nothing else mattered. That is the sign of a great evening in the opera house.