The Lowry, Salford
Wednesday 11 March 2020
A superbly creepy staging of Britten’s masterpiece
The small scale of the forces involved in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera was evident when the whole cast came on stage at the end to take their well-deserved applause; rather than the usual choruses of flower girls, matadors and several principal roles there were just six people. The orchestra was equally small, just 13 players. This creates a peculiar intimacy, ideally suited to this intensely claustrophobic and atmospheric ghost story. Every singer and musician was exposed, and they were all equal to the task.
The set played a vital part in creating the unsettling atmosphere, dominated by a huge bed which cleverly doubled as a puppet-theatre, and a stage coach, perspectives and images distorted and exaggerated like terrifying visions from a child’s nightmare of a fairy tale. Even inanimate objects took on a sinister aspect – the rocking horse in Act I became animated on its own; the gramophone in Act II crouched malevolently.
The nightmarish quality of the sets was enhanced by some surreal touches. The opening image of the Governess, seen from behind as she travelled in a stage coach to the country house could have come from a painting by René Magritte. The wallpaper on the vast wall at the back of the set could have been by William Morris but on a surreally large scale. When the wall disappeared to reveal the garden behind, the flowers unnaturally bright colourful as if from a painting by Henri Rousseau. The windows through which Miles stared, looking for Peter Quint, were like the windows of a pagan cathedral. Sometimes the characters cast huge shadows behind them, and even the floor sloped unsettlingly, like images from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
This production worked like the best horror films where the viewer’s imagination weds powerful visual imagery to unsettling music to create a sense of the uncanny. The two apparitions, the dead Miss Jessel and Peter Quint appeared suddenly at the window or at the door; combined with evocative lighting, a little dry ice and sinister music the two human figures take on a menacingly eerie aspect. An analogy from the world of cinema is the 2014 psychological drama and supernatural horror film It Follows, in which the disturbing score by Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland) inspired by John Cage, John Carpenter and Penderecki, and Goblin (who wrote the score for the original 1977 version of Suspiria) makes the ordinary human form seem extraordinary and terrifying.
All this would have been for nothing if the cast hadn’t made the impressive set their own. Sarah Tynan was on stage for virtually the whole opera, and we saw much of the action through her increasingly anxious eyes. Heather Shipp was a suitably caring Mrs Grose. The children were superb – Tim Gasiorek’s movement as young Miles was outstanding, particularly when he danced to the gramophone in the second Act. Jennifer Clark as Flora had a memorable moment as she climbed on top of the four poster bed and dropped puppets down, an eerie puppeteer. They both moved convincingly like sometimes naughty children; another highlight was when a ghostly hand pulled back the curtain at the back of the bed, and it was revealed as a child’s hand, a delicious jump scare. All the singers were in fine voice, despite very occasionally being slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra. Nicholas Watts as Quint relished his melismatic melodic lines addressed to Miles, and Eleanor Dennis as Miss Jessel was suitably ghostly. Their line (from The Second Coming by WB Yeats) ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’ lives long in the memory. And conductor Leo McFall brought out the taut instrumental lines from his skilled ensemble with great clarity.
And so out into the real world, where appropriately, it was a dark and stormy night but without the raw emotional storms we had just witnessed inside the Lowry.