Wednesday, March 31, 2010

REVIEW: The Turn of the Screw by The Mariinsky Opera

I was pleasantly impressed with the performance.
I need to put forward that I am writing this after a whirlwind weekend of theatre going. I saw Britten’s Turn of the Screw performed by The Mariinsky Opera on 27th of March afternoon at the Hong Kong Cultural Center Grand Theatre. This was followed by the concert of The Mariinsky Orchestra in the evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall. The following day, noontime, I went to The Metropolitan Opera HD Live’s screening of Les Conte’s d’Hoffmann at the Bethanie; followed by once again The Mariinsky Orchestra in the evening at the Hong Kong Cultural Center Concert Hall. I can’t remember the last time I had such a busy cultural weekend in Hong Kong. Of course, outside Hong Kong especially in New York and London, this kind of weekend was the standard. My record so far is 5 shows in two days.

This production of Turn of the Screw by David McVicar arrived Hong Kong tried and tested. It was created in St. Petersburg for The Mariinsky Opera and later on had a revival at the English National Opera in London. Upon knowing that this is the opera that the 38th Hong Kong Arts Festival will have for this year, I can’t help but feel that they are being cheap by bringing in a chamber opera with only six performers rather than the whole package that comes with a grand opera. Oh well…

The moment I realized that I will be seating on the first row of the stall, I was kind of worried. First, this will be my first time to see this opera; second, I believe that I do need the surtitles even though the opera will be in English. Yes, even opera in English needs surtitles especially if it will be sang by Russians; at least that was what I thought. Luckily, there were English surtitles at the side of the proscenium where it used to have only Chinese. Couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to see the Bolshoi Opera perform Stravinsky’s The Rake Progress in Moscow. While the original opera is in English, I thought that the Bolshoi had translated it into Russian. I only realized that they were singing in English half way through the opera. The English diction however of the cast in the Turn of the Screw was admirable.

The success of the opera was a result of how well the opera tread on ambiguity and how well the production made the most out of it. It was the slow discovery, the doubt whether the ghosts were real or not, the doubt whether the governess was imagining things or not that made this production unsettlingly good.

As the opera started, I can’t help but feel that the atmosphere of the staging was very film noir. Though the opera is not the typical crime drama associated in film noir cinematography, the low-key black-and-white visual style was apparent and very effective. The play on silhouetted figures and echoing shadows heightened the anticipated menace. However, it was also this immediate threat that somehow lessens the sense of discovery to just plain creepiness. It was not able to establish a sense of normality at the start. The set didn’t help either in this aspect as the dusty windows and untidy floor almost immediately tell us that the place is haunted and therefore, the governess should just turn around and go home.

The production’s use of stage-people clad in period costumes moving furniture on the stage were very distracting and confusing. One moment, they were supposed to be household staff, while another time, they were supposed to be a 'force' that move the bed.

I am being very picky. The reality is that I truly enjoyed it as it was. The orchestra led by Valery Gergiev was thoroughly effective in delivering that disproportionate sound that Britten is known for. The orchestra always sounded more than the sum of its parts. The cast was very well-balanced. Everyone contributed with expressive singing complemented with appropriately scaled acting. Yekaterina Solovieva in the role of the governess showed good-heartedness and despair even in her unidiomatic English. Andre Ilyushnikov’s Peter Quint was elegantly spooky with his clear resonant tenor voice. His diction in particular was very comprehensible. Flora, sung by Larisa Yelina, stood out for her bright and youthful tone.

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