Tuesday, 4 August 2015


New Opera Singapore
Victoria Theatre
Sunday (2 August 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 August 2015 with the title "New Opera Singapore turns in milestone performance".

For New Opera Singapore's fourth full-length production, the 4-year-old company took on its greatest challenge thus far, the Singapore premiere of Benjamin Britten's 1954 opera The Turn Of The Screw. This is a setting with words by Myfanwy Piper of Henry James' 1898 ghost story of the same title. While this might seem too progressive for Singaporeans' conservative tastes more accustomed to Puccini and Verdi, not to mention box office poison, the chamber opera was ideal for a young and forward-looking company hoping to make its mark.

Only eight singing parts and thirteen instrumentalists were required, and these were expertly marshalled by conductor Chan Wei Shing through its two performances. Britten's music utilised twelve-tone technique and the theme and variations form, which were so sophisticatedly employed as to be almost imperceptible. While the audience will not remember its tunes à la Boheme, it was clearly moved by the singing and acting.

Australian director Stefanos Rassios ensured that each part came across transparently in this gothic-styled suspense-mystery, and sets were kept minimal, with black and white with shades of grey being the only colours on stage. This dichotomy was to differentiate between the forces of innocence and evil (and a certain muddying of the two), that do battle through the course of the opera.

The intriguing story revolves around the care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, by a young governess who encounters the spirits of former caregivers who may be corrupting (or have corrupted) the children. The tension that builds up through its seemingly simple plot gets ratcheted to a fatal end, where “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” (a quote from W.B.Yeats), one in which paedophilia, demon-possession and psychosis could not be ruled out. In short, this was another R-rating that eluded the censors.

The young singers, most already veterans of the New Opera Singapore stable, were well-casted. Qualified lawyer turned soprano Teng Xiang Ting, now studying voice in Manchester, portrayed the conflicted governess with sympathy, one where wide-eyed optimism gets irreversibly transformed into obsession. Opposite her, David Charles Tay sang the spirit of dead valet Peter Quint, whose bright tenor voice and outward charm belied a deeper malevolence.

Sopranos Ashley Chua and Moira Loh sang Miles and Flora respectively, with the former being particularly convincing in conveying boyishness. Supporting well also were sopranos Yujin Kim and Rebecca Li as the ghost of Miss Jessel and housekeeper Mrs Grose. The other singing parts were was provided by tenors Leslie Tay (Driver) and Shaun Lee, whose brief Prologue set the tone for the opera.

An opera with no low vocal roles? That was the peculiar charm of this opera, which had a fairy-like feel to it at the beginning but later grew progressively dark and sinister. Further layers of textures were provided by the vivid orchestral sound, which boasted virtuoso roles from harpist Katryna Tan and pianist Thomas Ang, already well-known as soloists. This coming together of rising local vocal talents, instrumentalists and excellent production values provided for a performance that was far greater than the sum of its parts. 

Like Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in 1997 represented a high point in the Singapore Lyric Opera's portfolio, Britten's The Turn Of The Screw by New Opera Singapore represents another milestone for opera in Singapore. Can one hope for more edgy productions to come?

Production photographs by courtesy of New Opera Singapore.

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