(photo credit: Darryl Block)
Against the Grain scores again with Britten
by Axel Van Chee
Against the Grain Theatre has done it again. The company has set a very high bar for their future endeavors this time around with a stunning production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opening at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse. It is musically satisfying, theatrically absorbing, and they really should consider keeping this in their repertoire. It is perhaps the best production of the Screw that I have seen.
There is a bit of imagination demanded on the part of the audience, which is also very fitting for this opera.
Set to Henry James’s novella of the same name about a governess taking care of two children in an English moor, director Joel Ivany places the opera essentially in a hallway between two entrances, with the audience sitting on both sides of the corridor. “What!” you say? Well, it actually works, and the result is poetic and powerful.
The Turn of the Screw is essentially a collection of scenes; and by requiring the singings to move between door to door on the hallway stage, it not only accentuates the passage of time, but works like the physical manifestation of the mental progress. The simple yet effective set of fading tiles with frayed edges designed by Camellia Koo adds to the psychological nature of The Turn of the Screw. Jason Hand’s atmospheric lighting in combination with the desaturated period costumes by Erika Connor furthers the suspense. There is a bit of imagination demanded on the part of the audience, which is also very fitting for this opera.
They are well rehearsed, glorious of voices, and emotionally engaged.
The other thing about doing an opera in a theater the size of a shoebox is that sitting only 5 feet away, the audience sees and hears everything. But there is really nothing to fear because the cast is sensational. They are well rehearsed, glorious of voices, and emotionally engaged. There is an incredible chemistry between the singers and they really work like a team. Michael Barrett and Betty Allison are incredibly creepy as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, singing with dramatic fervor that bring out all the tension and torment. The siblings Flora and Miles, sung by Johane Ansell and Sebastian Gayowsky are energetic, clear voiced, and thoroughly convincing as the innocent children with dark pasts. The bunny with floppy ears instead of a doll is a very nice touch.
Megan Latham, who recently sang the role of the Mother in COC’s Tales of Hoffmann is a phenomenal Mrs. Grose. Her singing is generous and lyrical, and her portrayal of the housekeeper is full of subtleties. Finally, Miriam Kahlil delivers a carefully studied, exquisitely detailed Governess, and her singing is luminous, floating over the entire theatre. Her final “Malo Malo” is so forceful, so wretched, and it really shows what a great artist she is.
Topher Morzewski whom I have accused in the past of overwhelming the singer with his enthusiasm on the keyboard plays the score with much finesse. His sensitive reading is helped in part by Britten’s light textured music. I am almost convinced that the piano only version is if not better, just as good as the actual chamber orchestra version.
AtG once again proves that a small independent theatre can produce something as good as the big guys with a fraction of the operational cost and nothing fancy or gimmicky. So what’s next for AtG? More Britten? Philip Glass? Whatever it is, Toronto needs this company’s quality works. Go see it.
Turn of the Screw runs to May 27
Read director Joel Ivany's piece on mounting the production