The Turn of the Screw, Barbican, London – review

The death of Sir Colin Davis at the weekend robbed this concert of its esteemed conductor. Originally planned to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten, this first of the London Symphony Orchestra’s two concert performances of his opera The Turn of the Screw was dedicated to Sir Colin and so became a double tribute to composer and conductor alike.

Having made his debut with the LSO in 1959, Sir Colin was principal conductor from 1995 to 2006, and from 2007 the orchestra’s president. Among the British composers who were his contemporaries, he was particularly known as a supporter of Tippett, but anybody who saw one of his many performances of Britten’s Peter Grimes with the Royal Opera is unlikely to have forgotten it.

The Turn of the Screw was Sir Colin’s personal choice to start the LSO’s celebrations of Britten’s centenary year. The opera, 60 years old next year, has enjoyed an active life in the opera-house, not least because Britten’s economical scoring for 13 musicians makes it so affordable to put on. In the concert-hall it is more problematical: the singers have trouble getting the words across when the orchestra is on the platform with them and it was not easy to feel immersed in the haunted atmosphere of the country-house at Bly under the bright spotlights at the Barbican.

Though all the singers were well cast, they faced an uphill struggle. Sally Matthews sketched a detailed portrait of the Governess, rising to a pitch of intensity in the later stages of the drama. Andrew Kennedy’s mellifluous Quint and Katherine Broderick’s strong Miss Jessel made a potent pair of ghosts. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was the warm-hearted Mrs Grose; Michael Clayton-Jolly and Lucy Hall were the bright-eyed children, Miles and Flora.

The 13 solo players from the LSO proved highly skilled, the string duos at the opening of the second act setting off a series of especially unearthly instrumental sounds. The conductor, Richard Farnes, had been mentored in Sibelius by Sir Colin and paced Britten’s opera here unerringly. In the one-to-one confrontations in Act 2, where the orchestration is lighter, the singers started to create the rapport they needed. For the most part, though, this performance was a worthy one, not evocative, involving or nerve-wracking.

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