Screwed to a Turn
by Mel Cooper
I may have been wrong about ENRON initially but, if I may congratulate myself and quote my September 20 post, I did predict that the ENO’s autumnal Turn of the Screw would be good. This time I was only half wrong: it wasn’t just good, actually, it was the best Turn of the Screw ever!
If anything, I underestimated Mackerras in advance. He conducted the original UK run in 1954, replacing Britten for some performances. He is now 82 and getting every nuance, every sonority, every rhythm, every ounce of the drama. You cannot describe this performance; you have to experience it. And you have only four more chances to get to the Coliseum before the run ends.
Of course the cast was amazing. Every singer was dramatically and vocally spot-on. And the production is brilliant, intelligent, visually compelling, and dramatically cogent. The orchestra played with total love and devotion for Mackerras, producing constant clarity and transparency, while maintaining the most astonishing sense of pacing and rhythm.
It was opening night, so the cast, crew, and current music director, Edward Gardiner, gave a surprise presentation at the end to thank Mackerras for 61 years of conducting for Sadler’s Wells/English National Opera. And so it was a kind of love letter for a never-to-be forgotten job well done.
Half the audience was in tears during the opera’s last scene—it was so moving, and had built up to such a pitch. There were a few more tears when Mackerras accepted the gift—a photo of the set—signed by the entire cast. Mackerras has conducted 65 different operas at the ENO and is amazingly idiomatic in everything from Bach and Handel through Janacek, Martinu, and Britten. He conducts virtually peerless Wagner, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan. He is, for me, right up there with Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Giulini, the Kleibers, and Bernstein.
This celebration confirmed my rule: never ever miss a Mackerras performance if you can possibly help it. I hope he gets to do another 65 operas, and that someone finally records more of them. He is weirdly under-appreciated because he’s so eclectic, and doesn’t specialize. But I’ve never heard him give anything but completely-lived interpretations, and Turn of the Screw is breathtakingly right in every way. Book the remaining performances, catch it if you can, and marvel.
Twelfth Night: or What We, and Will, Will!
Like conductor Charles Mackerras, Gregory Doran is another artist who can do no wrong. He has returned to Stratford to direct a new and utterly beguiling Twelfth Night, that conveys its charm while highlighting its darker elements: Sir Toby’s alcoholism, the cruelty of the practical jokes, the real danger of the brawls and, finally, Malvolio’s unreconciled fury at the end when, unlike a Falstaff, he cannot forgive or forget the practical jokes played on him, or accept his own part in bringing them upon himself.
Richard McCabe’s belching and farting Sir Toby is a fine foil for the narrow, fundamentalist, smug Malvolio of Richard Wilson. Doran’s designer, Robert Jones, creates an early 19th-century Illyria based on the historic Albania of Napoleonic and Byronic romanticism. It works brilliantly to convey a sense of somewhere exotic and almost magical; a setting (and costumes!) that are quasi-fantastical and “other”. Viola has landed in her own kind of Oz. The music is particularly fine, and one moment—when the interior of Olivia’s home melts into a street bazaar—is particularly gorgeous.
As always, at Stratford, the cast performs as an excellent ensemble, with Nancy Carroll and Sam Alexander as poignant twins; Alexandra Gilbreath as a fetching Olivia; Jo Stone-Fewings as a sexy Duke (who seems to have discovered love for the first time); and Pamela Nomvete as an earthy and totally appealing Maria. I should also single out James Fleet’s touching Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the whirling dervish of Miltos Yerolemou’s Feste.
During a week in which the head of Britain’s fascist British National Party got too much positive publicity for his pure-Brit lunatic cant, the RSC’s cast reflected the multi-cultural and multi-racial make-up of the country effortlessly, yet gave the audience an illuminating and entertaining production of Shakespeare’s great classic. Three cheers for the RSC, and its colour-blind casting; and three more specifically for Greg Doran and his entire team! Clearly the BNP doesn’t watch the X-Factor TV show either, which, whatever else you think of it, offers a platform to talents from the many backgrounds that enrich contemporary Britain.
Like the Nazis before them, the morons of the BNP have some insane notions about racial purity, and a very shaky sense of the nation’s history and the contributions of people from all over the world who have settled here over millennia. Shame on the BNP… and hurrah for the RSC for recognizing that we’re in the 21st century!