Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Turn of the Screw

Theater an der Wien, 17/09/2011

Nikolai Schukoff The Prologue / Peter Quint
Sally Matthews | The Governess
Ann Murray | Mrs Grose
Jennifer Larmore | Miss Jessel
Eleanor Burke | Flora
Teddy Favre-Gilly | Miles

Cornelius Meister | Conductor
Robert Carsen | Director

Robert Carsen has had a couple of rocky rides at the Staatsoper but with recent successes at the Theater an der Wien is now apparently beloved by the Viennese. Some people I spoke to at the second performance of this Turn of the Screw had been to the opening night and didn’t have a bad word to say about this production; critics were equally fulsome in their praise. I wasn’t so convinced.

Carsen presses forward in fits and starts: action is busy and moves along slickly but scene changes are frequent and long, spilling over from the interludes and stripping the plot of narrative momentum. A solid black portal just behind the proscenium arch covers the stage, irising in and out to frame the set, though the effect wasn’t as claustrophobic as Carsen perhaps imagined and it was irritating that he opened and closed it while singers were in mid-phrase. The cinematic aesthetic is rounded off with grey sets and a great deal of video projection which forces much of the singing offstage, like the journey to Bly, which shows a filmed governess in a fast-moving train ripped off from Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production. This was a terrible idea as Sally Matthews can’t act very well for camera and was barely audible from behind the wings.

If this sounds unusually inept for Carsen it’s possibly because this is his first production in charge of light and scenic design. Whatever the reason, he certainly seems to have been left with little time to devise a Konzept that coheres. The basic idea is Freudian and only evident in three scenes. Seeing Quint outside the window the Governess touches up her hair and er, cheekily rearranges her skirt, though after flirting with the ghost she rather abruptly decides to be terrified by it. This rather clumsily signposts Quint’s nocturnal call to Miles in Act I scene 8, which is staged as a wish fulfilment dream sequence with the Governess writhing in one of Carsen’s huge verticalized centrestage beds, overlaid by a video projection of her lost in NC-17 rapture with Quint. They are seen by Miles (this coincides with his ‘I'm here’ in the music) but somehow manage to explain their actions, and indeed continue – for some length – once he has left. While the editing suggests that Quint’s offstage call to Miles is a call to observe, in the film itself Quint shows no interest in the boy. ‘Miles! What are you doing here?’ is staged as Miles rousing the Governess out of her bed. He seems to know what she was dreaming about, but the subtext is unclear. He could be playing games, but traumatised peeping tom – surely a bit tame for this opera – is suggested more strongly.

Whatever the meaning of this scene, the ghosts are now firmly lodged inside the Governess’s head and start making physical apparitions, moving into the house for Act II scene 1 (‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’). The Governess sits unseen in an armchair turned away from the audience, staggering out of it, and her bad daydream, as the ghosts leave. A second coup de théâtre comes with the segue directly into the Governess’s labyrinth number.

This, strangely, is where the Konzept is dropped. No further reference is made to the dream and no follow-through is suggested by the Personenregie. Radical re-imaginings aren’t Carsen’s style, but he did stage the prologue as a seminar and show us, in the dream sequence, some ideas heavily influenced by Otto Rank’s theories on narcissism and literary doubles*, so some kind of development or more elegant juncture at which to leave things open-ended might have been expected.

The singing was generally not as solid as in the recent Glyndebourne broadcast. I liked Sally Matthews’s Donna Anna in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni, but found her less memorable in A Child of Our Time at the Konzerthaus last November. Here much of the text got swallowed by a persistent wobble in her upper register, and top notes were shrill. Veteran Ann Murray’s wobble was only slightly steadier, and her revelations in Act I scene 5 lacked impact. My expectations weren’t high for the children, and a solid ‘Malo’ from Teddy Favre-Gilly aside, they only just met them. Eleanor Burke sang ‘the Dead Sea’ with a big wide smile on her face and must have had the most gleeful possession seen in a staging of this opera, but then stranger things have happened to this work in Vienna. Carsen doesn’t give Miss Jessell much stage time, but Jennifer Larmore made the most of it and was the more disturbing presence of the ghosts.

Quint is hard to read in this production. There’s the erotic dream with no outward sign of irregularity; in the following scene he sulks shirtless on top of Miles’s piano. Too much of the time he’s kept offstage, and the Quint-Governess dynamic is given a far more prominent dramatic arc than Quint-Miles. It was a shame that Nikolai Schukoff’s performance was so hampered by the staging, as this was a Quint I would happily hear again. He sung powerfully and clearly in unaccented English, and though there’s a little way to go with interpretation he’s more than mastered the part.

The performance was led by Cornelius Meister, a young German conductor whose phenomenal musicianship – not words I use lightly – has made RSO Wien concerts unmissable events over the past season (his first as their Chefdirigent). Immediacy of expression was never a problem with this orchestra, its musicians used to the indignity of playing as if their jobs depend on it. But Meister has focused the sound, adding greater precision, depth, and textural clarity. All of this was evident in the pit on Saturday; of course ‘Malo’ has to sound pared down to very little, but there was a fullness of tone elsewhere (particularly the strings in the journey and lesson scenes) which gave the impression of more substantial instrumental forces. Having observed Meister in April picking up a soloist’s left-field tempo change without so much as dropping a beat, I knew that coordination between the pit and singers wouldn’t be a problem. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was in fact flawless, but then I go to the Wiener Staatsoper a lot and don’t often get spoiled with such precision.

*‘So, then, we see primitive narcissism as that in which the libidinous interests and those serving self-preservation are concentrated upon the ego with equal intensity, and which in the same way protect against a series of threats by reactions directed against the complete annihilation of the ego, or else toward its damage and impairment. [...] That it is actually primitive narcissism which resists the threat is shown quite clearly by the reactions in which we see the threatened narcissism assert itself with heightened intensity: whether it be in the form of pathological self-love [...] or in the defensive form of the pathological fear of one's self, often leading to paranoid insanity and appearing personified in the pursuing shadow, mirror-image, or double. On the other hand, in the same phenomena of defence the threat also recurs, against which the individual want to protect and assert himself. So it happens that the double, who personified narcissistic self-love, becomes an unequivocal rival in sexual love; or else, originally created as a wish-defence against a dreaded eternal destruction, he reappears in superstition as the messenger of death.’ From The Double: a Psychoanalytic Study.

Image credit Theater an der Wien / Wilfried Hösl

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