GLYNDEBOURNE opera-goers needed something a little stronger than Champagne to soothe lacerated nerves during the long interval at the opening night of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw last week.
In this most aptly-named opera the audience is sucked into a vortex of horror – rather like a doomed biker on a Wall of Death.
The production itself is a circular progression of key changes. You know there won’t be a Mills and Boon ending. And you are right. The spirit world, the barely-there spectre of child abuse, disillusionment and the final heartstopping denouement might not make for a comfortable evening but the narrative and cracking pace ensured no lolling heads among the corporate ticketholders as the curtain fell.
In Jonathan Kent’s revival of the Britten interpretation of a Henry James ghost story, the audience is introduced to two children, Flora and Miles and a housekeeper, Mrs Grose, living in an isolated country house. A governess is appointed on the understanding she must never worry their busy and absent uncle with routine welfare issues. By the time she has to, it has all gone terrifyingly wrong.
The Turn of the Screw focuses on a battle between good and evil where childhood innocence falls prey to the corruptibility of a warped adult mind – even after death.
In fact libretto writer Myfanwy Piper puts Yeats’ famous lines from The Second Coming: ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’ into the mouths of two spirits at the centre of the tale.
Musical director Jakub Hrusa brings a haunting, central European chill to this melancholy and brooding score.
And Britten’s absorption with the East Anglian landscape permeates the production with waving reeds and writhing trees on set accompanied by bells from offshore warning buoys, psalms and plaintive folk music woven into the harmony.
A bouquet to 12-year-old Thomas Parfitt, a choral scholar at Dulwich College who sustained the role of Miles with a luminous treble, never faltering – even through the extreme physicality of the part.
Joanna Songi played Flora and Miah Persson – who sang Donna Elvira in this year’s revival production of Don Giovanni – took over the role of the governess from Kate Royal who is expecting a baby.
Her sculptural soprano depicted joy and anguish while the ‘fifties costumes hinted at a bleak, post-war austerity.
Liverpool-born mezzo Susan Bickley moved and acted as well as she sang, Toby Spence was a surprisingly sympathetic Quint and Giselle Allen terrified as an abused Miss Jessel, complete with calves still lichen-stained from drowning.
Mark Henderson’s lighting once again illuminated the narrative as well as the stage and Paul Brown’s quick-fire changes transformed plate glass into a lake. The opening scene of countryside moving past the windows of a stream train carriage was clever too.
As a result of this perfect production, I’ve borrowed the Henry James book and will curl up by a roaring fire as black branches tap my window.
Photo by Alaistair Muir.