What could be more timely in the middle of a lockdown than stories from the claustrophobic confines of a haunted house? Two opera companies evidently agree, and are offering new online filmed versions of a pair of operas based on Gothic stories by Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe.
While full-scale opera has become difficult during the pandemic, Benjamin Britten’s chamber operas have come into their own. OperaGlass Works was due to perform The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London last year, but when coronavirus restrictions intervened, the company moved its plans online.
The result is a marvellously atmospheric film of the opera. The performance still takes place at Wilton’s but, with no audience present, the entire building is available to house the action. The eerie tale of James’s novella unfolds around the twisting staircases and crumbling walls. Ghostly figures peer through the windows, and even the outside scenes are brought to life, using the stalls area filled with shoulder-high reeds, cleverly invoking Britten’s beloved Suffolk fens.
This hybrid production, available on demand at arts channel Medici.tv, owes its success equally to the producers of the originally planned stage production, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson, and the film director, Dominic Best.
It is impossible to tell that while the singers are in the hall, the Sinfonia of London and conductor John Wilson are several miles away, in Chelsea’s Cadogan Hall. The creepy intensity of Britten’s score is well sustained and the cast is without weakness. Rhian Lois underplays the Governess nicely, the safest approach for close-up filming. Gweneth Ann Rand gives her strong support as Mrs Grose, and Francesca Chiejina and Robert Murray are well paired as the ghostly Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. The two children, Flora and Miles, played by Alys Mererid Roberts and Leo Jemison, are entirely convincing. Visits to Wilton’s will not feel the same after this.
The newly commissioned film of Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher has just gone live on Boston Lyric Opera’s operabox.tv. Based on Poe’s short story, this is one of Glass’s least performed operas, a minimalist work in more ways than one: not just musically, but with a vanishingly thin libretto for a 90-minute opera.
Even so, director and visual artist James Darrah has thrown the kitchen sink at it. Darrah’s multi-layered conception is as much a slice of abstract art house cinema as a narrative drama. To meet coronavirus restrictions, no singers are seen in the film. Instead, hand-drawn and stop-motion animation take their place, and the long instrumental interludes are accompanied by a motley array of archival film images focusing on hot issues of the moment, such as migrants and animal testing, that have little to do with Poe or Glass.
For all that, the film is never boring and Glass’s opera arguably benefits from a lot of visual stimulation. Chelsea Basler, Jesse Darden and Daniel Belcher lead the cast. David Angus, Boston Lyric Opera’s music director, is the conductor.