ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.