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Why Britten was such a big moment

Someone recently asked me why there was such a big deal about us doing our first Britten opera and it is true that much has been made of our first foray into Britten's repertoire, both by the critical press as well as ourselves. 

It may seem odd that an opera company should approach a particular composer with trepidation ("opera company produces an opera shocker") but it isn't terribly surprising. Despite our reputation for lunacies and a long list of scarcely heard of Italian composers we do in fact have quite a wide repertory history that includes Janacek, Tchaikovsky, Menotti, some French romantics and Beethoven. But certain composers we have always been wary of; like the first, hesitant, almost-did-it-that-time attempt  to jump off top diving board at the swimming baths. Strauss is one, Wagner is most certainly another and so is (was) Britten. 

Yes, there are question marks about the economics of a composer who will never sell as well as Puccini in a house like ours, but the caution was about the artistic delivery of the piece and to some degree the suitability of our space. After so many years, the people who determine a company's output enjoy particular certainties of experience, of knowledge and of course preference. Even now, I am always a little unsure of what the reaction to a Mozart production will be because as an audience member, I don't have a close affinity to, or affection for, the operas in his canon. I think I know them but those who know (and love) them better may react to an interpretation differently to me. With Turn of the screw, there was confidence in the fact that James secured Steuart Bedford and a terrific cast along with the brilliant Annilese Miskimmon, but still the questions remained. 

Some composers have a very particular kind of audience (I always think Bellini is a partisan composer for what it is worth) and the study, opinion and analysis of their work follows an especially academic as well as emotional  trajectory; Britten, in my view, has always been in that category (this has changed somewhat, perhaps, since the full appraisal of his operas during the centenary). So you might say, given our history, that we approach him as outsiders, almost interlopers into his canon.  

When I saw the first full run through of our Turn of the screw, I was  able, as an individual, to judge what I saw as a piece of theatre and found it compelling. But I am not intimate with the work in the way many others are and haven't seen several different productions of it (Mea culpa, I was busy immersing myself in the blood and guts of my compatriots). Consequently, whilst I can judge a piece of theatre, the singing, the playing, I don't set that into the same context as Britten aficionados and this is where the trepidation comes in; instinct is one thing but instinct is rarely the only thing upon which critical analysis is based. The wait for reviews seemed more than usually tense yesterday (yes, we still wait for reviews and care about them!). 

I will argue for hours with someone (whether they want to or not) about  the appropriate way to stage an opera about the backstreets of Naples or the intentions Puccini had for Scarpia and Tosca or indeed whether Fanciulla is his best opera. In truth, I will argue vehemently about most things operatic but you'll discern an otherwise usually absent sheepishness on this one. We as a company are (were?) on less secure ground with Britten and as such our first foray into it was always likely to be a big thing for us. The critical reception has, though, been superb and so tonight we can float into work on the warm waves of relief.


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