OperaUpClose have achieved with a fairly successful staging of Britten's serial spectrecle. The Turn Of The Screw is a tricky opera littered with themes and vernacular that are very slippery to grasp. Britten's treatment is no less elusive. Though his extraordinary (even by his standards) rigour in composition is clear in analysis, in the theatre, especially one as compressed as The King's Head, themes can seem a bit buried. In this performing version, OperaUpClose have engaged an excellent pianist, David Eaton, who plays with great dynamic range, shape and dramatic awareness. Yet even he cannot prevent the piano from becoming congested, unable to make sense of the delicate, diaphanous ensemble for which Britten originally conceived the music. The percussive Gamelan origins of the score are well rendered but, played on a single instrument, the weight of the orchestral voices simply accumulate - at times the sheer volume of the sound becomes rather overwhelming.
As a corollary to this, up close there is a wide range of approach to singing the music. I appreciated the insidious, powder-intimate piano singing of David Menezes' Quint as well as the clear, bashful-but-not-fragile treble voice of Samuel Woof [I think*]. At the other end of the scale is Eleanor Burke's Flora, singing right out into the space with great confidence, and Laura Casey's Mrs Grose playing down but not underselling her considerable instrument in a comic reading of the role's class-difference.
Managing all possible approaches in a single performance is Katie Bird, singing the Governess. This is the exemplar of how to sing a role irrespective of the space or production, giving body to the sound even at the quietest moments but filling in moments of tutta forza with stagecraft and vocal colour, never forcing the needle into the red, as it were. It's classy singing, coupled with poised, absorbing acting, clearly working out clear direction. In Edward Dick's psychologically-centred production (of the two basic readings he sides with the action coming from within the Governess' imagination, the so-called 'second reading') the Governess becomes the centre of the drama, with the space and its inhabitants an extension of her own mind. In addition to this, Katie Bird gave us a beautifully ambivalent complex of both compassion for the children and at the same time a creepy, physical possessiveness that aligned her dangerously close to the suffocating adult demands of Quint. As her predecessor Miss Jessel, Catrine Kirkman is a fine expressionist counterpart to Bird, an anti-Governess with sultry, almost New-Romantic costuming & makeup, a fevered stage presence and some comparably fine singing.
The director has clearly assembled quite a strong production team. The deceptively simple, white-screen space is a super playground for his lighting designer (also using subtle but effective projection) and I suspect that they've also used a choreographer, not only for the pockets of dancing required by the score but also for the movement of characters within and behind the set. It all works within its modest confines. It might not be the best way to hear the opera by it does have a fine principal showcasing her ability, the best reason to see the show.
*Neither OperaUpClose nor The King's Head Theatre publish a cast online, so I can't check (although, on this occasion, a cast was written on a board at the auditorium door)