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The thinnest tightrope

DAVID WILKINS at the Hungarian première
of Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw'


Benjamin Britten's opus 54 -- The Turn of the Screw -- was composed in a rush of fevered inspiration (and -- not unusually -- to a tight deadline. Britten had a particular genius for combining the two!) in 1954 and was premièred, ironically enough in terms of later Britten opera choices, in Venice in the same year. Exactly fifty years on, the predominantly conservative opera-goers of Hungary have their first taste of its ineffable depths in a première Magyar production at the Erkel Theatre in Budapest in February 2004.

Well, actually, I know that I can't get away with respectfully alluding to 'ineffable depths' in some kind of old-fashioned way. In fact, these are the all-too-talked-about issues that sustain the profitability of tabloid newspapers and some satellite media the world over. It's very difficult, now, to see this opera (because of what we think we know of Britten and what we, maybe, need to know of Henry James) as anything other than concerned with heightened sexual-hysteria and the obsessionally fashionable subject of paedophilia.

'It is a curious story', are the first words of the opera's Prologue where 'curious' is too cautious a word. There might be some case to be made for Henry James not really knowing what subconscious subtext he was writing into his 1898 'Tale' -- though I reserve considerable doubt, myself, but, -- surely, surely, surely, the Britten disposed towards boy-love (however celibately), was aware of confronting the major issue of his life in a dangerously brave, public and provocative way.

So -- what's a director to do? Any antiquated Hammer House of Horror ('Shucks, you pervs! It's just a great ghost story!') avoidance of sexuality seems naïve, and any toppling into feverish gropes and gasps would be cheesy, wrong and risible. It is, actually, the finest and thinnest tightrope that you can choose to walk at the moment in modern, or perhaps any, opera.

This Hungarian production by Kovalik Balázs is, undoubtedly, 'meaningful'. It has been thought through with an overview of care that betokens a serious love of, and engagement with the work and the composer. I know that he's already done Peter Grimes in Budapest -- which I didn't see; but his Peter Maxwell Davies Resurrection, which I did, was a joyous hoot from beginning to end. This is something more than trendy eastern-European 'I have an idea (or two, if you're lucky!)' director's theatre. It's a real engagement with the challenge of works he clearly loves and has much he wants to say about. I was privileged to meet him and hear something of his enthusiasm. He needs, and deserves, to be released from the manacles of the impoverishment (in taste as much as finance) of his largely unadventurous environment to explore and expand. He could well be a significant contributor to international opera with the one lucky-break of recognition.

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Copyright © 29 February 2004 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK


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