English National Opera. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the novella by Henry James. Directed by David McVickar. The Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg production, by McVickar, with English National Opera singers.
A wonderful, chilling, and finally inscrutable evening in the opera house. David McVickar has laid out this famous ghost story in a 1950s operatic version sumptuously yet simply on the expansive stage of the English National Opera in St. Martin’s Lane. The sultry, rainy, windy night somehow set just the right atmosphere. On a persistently dark, somber stage, tall screens, somehow semi-transparent and reflective at the same time, full of great or small rectangles and, in one instance, curling branches of trees, slide noiselessly left and right, demarcating playing areas that become occupied with the furniture of an undistinguished country house: brass beds, school room desks, chairs, tables. A tall floor vase upstage holds flora of muted colors. Beyond, what seems the irregular shore of a lake. Above that, sometimes brightly illuminated, is a plain, neutral sky — not blue, not grey — which can be swiftly closed off to blackness by the operation of black flats sliding in from left, right, and above. This creates a singularly appropriate setting and atmosphere for this tale of innocence compromised and ultimately betrayed.
Piper’s libretto quotes, and the singers insistently repeat, a line from W. B. Yeats: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The opera ends with the sad, inexplicable death of the boy, Miles, who has sorrowfully admitted to the Governess, “I’m bad.” James left us guessing, and it seems all the other versions of the story do the same. It all makes for a satisfying, thought-provoking experience. This was my first-ever Britten opera in performance (although I’ve heard Billie Budd as broadcast on the Saturday afternoon opera series from the Metropolitan Opera). I’m no big fan of serial music, generally speaking, and I don’t pretend to understand it. But this serial music seemed to be just right for the task Britten had set for himself. And the libretto was, I thought, just right as well: stylish, articulate, poetic, polysyllabic yet clear, and very singable.