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Byre Opera: THE TURN OF THE SCREW review by Herald Scotland

Thu 30 Jun **** review by Keith Bruce

BENJAMIN Britten's Henry James-based chamber opera from 1954 is a gift to a director of imagination, and Tania Holland Williams and her designer Gregor Donnolly have created a very elegant compact touring version for Byre Opera from St Andrews University, its Victorian gothic costuming, props and furnishings full of surprises, like a Vaudeville illusionist. With a reverse-rake apron, the set is full of beguiling motifs and the fine young cast pop up from behind flying flats, through curtains and cupboard doors and prowl the stage-centre mantlepiece.

Even better, the singers have the characterisation to match, as well as the mime skills. The manifestation of Quint (Chris Huggon) and Miss Jessell (Catherine Hooper) here are very real, but soprano Caroline Taylor – about to begin her Masters studies at the Royal Northern College of Music – suggests other interpretations in the anxious Governess she presents from the beginning. Her diction in particular is exemplary but that strength runs through the entire company, including Christina Bell's very child-like Flora and (in this performance) young Peter Napier's Miles.

In the Macrobert's rarely-utilised pit, a 13-piece band, led by Feargus Hetherington and conducted by Michael Downes, often sounded like a much larger ensemble, with the winds and percussion especially crisp in the wonderfully evocative score. A testament to the quality of the music-making at St Andrews, it is to be hoped the department has upcoming vocal talents to match those of Taylor and Huggon for its upcoming production of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen.

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