I’m still waiting for the Royal Opera to step up. Nearly a year into the Covid crisis and what do they have to show for it? One stonking concert staging of Ariodante, a couple of gala-ish performances and some operatic scraps. Where’s the creativity? Where’s digital ingenuity, the willingness to experiment, reinvent, adapt? Where, frankly, is opera?
When companies with a far greater reliance on box office than the heavily subsidised Royal Opera can do their bit — look at Grange Park’s tireless stream of content, ENO and Scottish Opera’s various car-park Bohèmes, English Touring Opera’s monodramas and song cycles, Glyndebourne’s Offenbach-in-the-garden — it’s hard not to feel frustrated. We can acknowledge that it’s easier for smaller companies to pivot and think on their feet without absolving our national opera company of all creative responsibility.
Elsewhere necessity has generated some rich invention, perhaps most unexpectedly in the return of the opera film. This dinosaur of a genre hit its stride in the 1970s with Ingmar Bergman’s mischievous, wise Magic Flute and Joseph Losey’s sumptuous Don Giovanni, swathed in Venetian lagoon mist like an ermine stole, but stumbled down a dead end in the 1980s with the excesses of Zeffirelli’s La traviata and the soft-porn Domingo Carmen(check out the arias on that).
Covid and the rise of streaming platforms have together been the catalyst for a major digital reboot. Forget widescreen cinematic spectacle and embrace the opera film 2.0: low-budget, small-screen, experimental.
We’ve already seen everything from new naturalism in Scottish Opera’s The Telephone — a smartphone-era update of Menotti’s one-acter — to zany, fantasy-animation in VOpera’s ingenious L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, with Grange Park’s stylised, black-and-white Owen Wingrave, filmed on location, sitting somewhere in between. Now arrives another cracking new take on the form.
Released on Marquee TV this week, OperaGlass Works’ The Turn of the Screw is what happens when a pandemic cancels a production and, instead of boxing up and going dark, the creators allow the show to react to the situation, to riff on isolation and madness, to mutate and spread — an operatic triffid with designs on new territory.
It helps when the theatre in question is Wilton’s — London’s oldest and most evocative music hall, a house ripe for the haunting. When Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson’s production was cancelled, they approached Dominic Best to help them turn Britten’s opera into a film instead. With just seven days to shoot, and this empty, suggestive space entirely available to them, they created a production that spilled out over the edge of the stage, invading every corner of the building.
A lush reed bed grows up and around the auditorium, engulfing chairs and music-stands, while ivy trails down from the balcony above. It would have been easy to overplay the gothic in this space, but designer Tom Piper and Lewis Hannaby’s lighting defy expectations — opening outdoors in a hazy, summery glow, and only gradually chilling things right down to candle stubs and shadows.
There’s a lot of cinematic game-playing here, as you’d expect from a production refracting a ghost story back through our current experiences of lockdown. The fourth wall takes a battering as cameras and crew members are deliberately caught in shot. Musicians also appear in the instrumental variations — part of the story or adjacent to it? It’s carefully unclear.
When not addressing one another directly, the cast (in Victorian dress) perform straight down the lens, twisting their relationship with the audience another half-turn further. Always implicated in Henry James’s story, now it’s as though we’ve slipped into the jury stand as each character pleads their case directly, fighting for our ear, each manipulating us in persuasive close-up. Anyone who saw exceptional treble Leo Jemison’s unsettling Miles for Garsington Opera will rejoice that it’s a performance now captured on film, but also shudder at the impact of his ‘Malo, Malo’ sung straight at you, without once breaking eye contact.
A pretty flawless cast starts with Rhian Lois’s girlish Governess — performing womanhood cautiously, self-consciously, control always on the edge of collapse — and Gweneth Ann Rand’s warmly sung Mrs Grose, and continues through Alys Mererid Roberts’s Flora (an adult soprano, rather than a girl) and Francesca Chiejina’s Miss Jessel, her luscious voice heavy with illicit experience and knowledge. Robert Murray’s Quint is beautifully sung, but with perhaps a little too much earth in the tone and too much melodrama in the make-up for true horror, which lands most violently in the quieter moments.
Add John Wilson’s crack band (recorded in pin-prick detail and quality in Cadogan Hall) and you have the best of both worlds: the theatricality and immediacy of the stage, and the trickery of the screen. Somewhere at the junction of the two something chilling happens. I’ll be leaving the light on tonight…
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