Britten’s opera, The Turn of the Screw, is based on the novella by Henry James and is about an idealistic but inexperienced governess sent to care for two children, Flora and Miles, at an English estate. Returning to the Coliseum for six performances after a successful 2007 run, this production maintains three of its original cast, and a conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who last conducted this opera in 1956!
Essentially, this is a Victorian ghost story, albeit one which much ambiguity and the suggestion of a harrowing past of child abuse. At first, the governess is charmed by her charges and comforted by the companionability of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Soon, however, ominous things begin to happen, and the governess encounters what seem to be the ghosts of two former employees: the last governess Mrs. Jessel and Peter Quint the former master’s valet. There is a hint that something unsavory happened between the children and these domestics, but this has not ended, despite their deaths, leading the current governess to pursue the truth, regardless of the consequences.
Britten’s spooky score was performed with diamond precision by the chamber orchestra, the air of tension never far away, and a number of excellent solos were impressive. Rebecca Evans as the governess was superb, her voice being equally strong no matter where on the register she wa singing, and she brought real emotion to her every word. Elsewhere, I was particularly fond of Ann Murray’s Mrs Grose, her starched performance perfectly suiting the role of the disbelieving housekeeper. And Nazan Fikret and Charlie Manton as the two children more than held their own against these seasoned professionals, and I have to mention Manton’s extremely impressive piano playing miming which from my seat looked extremely convincing.
The staging is very sparse, brilliantly evocative of a Victorian horror story from the start (never has a rocking-horse seemed so creepy) and transitions between scenes were excellently executed by a number of a silent maids and butlers and an ingenious system of a series of sliding panels which never seemed intrusive. The lighting was also particlarly effective in creating the requisite haunted mood of this archetypal English stately home and in creating a real sense of intimacy on a massive stage.
James’ original novella has long been the source of much debate, and this leads to the only real problem that I had with this production. There are numerous interpretations of the story, mostly around whether the ghosts are really there or just part of the Governess’ imagination, and I felt that here, they were trying to have the best of both worlds and maintain the ambiguity too much. The extent to which the ghosts interacted with the children and indeed sing, strongly suggests their malevolent presence as something of the supernatural. However, Evans’ portrayal of the anguished Governess often tended to the desperate side with much crumpling to the ground and combined with Miles’ flirtatiousness, this left me feeling like they were making the case for it all being in her head. Certainly though, this production does not shy away from considering her equally responsible for the final tragedy, no matter what form this particular evil took.