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Turning the screws

The Turn of the Screw
New Zealand Opera
October 3 & 5 (Wellington), October 18, 20 & 23 (Auckland)
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

From opening to ending, New Zealand Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw is a dark, unsettling, nerve-shredding experience – and an exercise in finely judged storytelling.

It all takes place on an exquisitely designed set, the central feature of which is a series of huge, tilting, concentric black frame-arches, resembling an infinity mirror gone badly askew. Scattered here and there, as if shipwrecked, are a grand piano, a creepy dolls’ house, a desk. Even the little details are done beautifully: when Alexandros Swallow (as Miles) enters, he has one stocking up and one stocking down, a tiny harbinger of the chaos to come.

Swallow and his young co-star, Alexa Harwood (as Flora), deliver performances with a gravity and confidence that belies their years; the former, having the larger part, gets a particular opportunity to show off a genuinely impressive voice. The children are by turns boisterous, vulnerable and malignant, their terrible inability to enjoy a loving childhood forming the emotional heart of this deeply disturbed piece.

The adults revolving around them are by and large just as good. Anna Leese as the Governess is of course the centrepiece, and produces a finely judged performance. Her piano singing – such a difficult art in front of a full opera house – is an especial joy, and acting-wise she matches it with a gentle, rounded characterisation that leaves any histrionics to one side. Her diction is also for the most part immaculate – not something that can be said for Patricia Wright’s Mrs Grose, alas, whose lack of clarity proves something of a hindrance to following the storyline, though her character is otherwise very well played.

Jared Holt gets pressed into double service, first as the Prologue and then as the shadowy Peter Quint. Awkward transition aside – surely it would have been better to find someone else for the first role – Holt has a voice of exceptional power and a depth unsurprising in a former baritone. Rounding out the cast, Madeline Pierard (Miss Jessel) reminds us of what a fabulous voice she possesses, rounded and mellifluous, and is a presence both forbidding and pitiful, her snow-white hair a troubling beacon on a dark backdrop.

The acting is not, in my view, uniformly perfect. Approaching the end, Leese’s Governess undergoes a strange return to serenity, despite the world slowly collapsing around her; her final scene with Wright’s Mrs Grose doesn’t ring true. Holt’s Quint, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. At times he is menace personified, but there is also a hint of buffoonery. It’s partly a matter of personal taste, of course, but I would have liked to see more genuine, unadulterated viciousness.

No fault, though, can be found with the backdrop – both visual and musical – on which the leads do their work. The chamber-sized orchestra, splendidly conducted by Holly Mathieson, sound far more numerous than they actually are, maintain a ceaseless, restless energy, and conjure up an extraordinary range of colours, from dark treacly tones to manic, skittering passages.

Visually, not only is the set exceptional, it is also used fantastically well, with immense depth and clever use of shadow-play. But perhaps the star of the show is the lighting. In such a dark, menacing piece, the right lighting is essential, and here designer Matthew Marshall comes up trumps. Whether it’s the fine lines along the skew-whiff frames, the eerie lights on the dolls’ house, the effects that make characters look like they’re underwater, or the final, unrelenting focus on the Governess’s face, the lighting is (pardon the pun) spot on, and a vital part of a production whose restless energy and macabre tension make it a genuine tour de force.

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