Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2012 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Fiona Murphy, Andrew Tortise, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon, Thomas Copeland | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 2 March 2012

There was nothing too clever attempted in NI Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw, certainly nothing as ambitious as their award-winning production of Tosca on the walls of Derry City, but Britten’s atmospheric little chamber piece doesn’t really need anything more than an intimate environment to achieve optimum effect, and that was certainly achieved with the choice of venue at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey. The attention to detail then was in letting the music and libretto of this powerful little piece speak for itself, and with the benefit of an excellent cast of fine singers that was admirably achieved.

Screw
This is the third production from the recently formed NI Opera that I’ve seen at the Theatre at the Mill (with only one production so far, Hansel and Gretel, at the more traditional venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast), and while one of those productions was a scaled-down romp through Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (in conjunction with Scottish Opera), the venue has been particularly well-suited to the theatrical intimacy of something like Menotti’s The Medium and now with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The smaller-scale staging of course makes the works suitable for touring – an important remit of the opera company to attract new audiences from traditionally neglected parts of the province – but it’s also the best way to introduce an audience to the close relationship between a music score and a theatrical performance that takes expression to another level, and in that respect The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the most challenging of the NI Opera productions thus far.

Henry James’s novella is well-enough known, adapted numerous times for TV and cinema, and highly influential in the field of Victorian ghost stories because of the dark ambiguities that lie at the heart of the work. The story of a Governess who is engaged to look after two children, Flora and Miles, on a country estate, there are disturbing hints of child abuse or at least bad influence in the children’s relationship with two former servants, Quint and Miss Jessel, who had been engaged there previously. The Governess, half in love with the guardian of the children but forbidden from disturbing from his work in the city on any pretext, seems to conjure the spirits of the malevolent former servants – both now dead – partly out of concern for strange behaviour she witnesses in the children, partly from her own repressed urges at the suggestion of Quint and Miss Jessel’s scandalous behaviour, and partly as an excuse to get in touch with the children’s guardian.

Nothing however can be pinned-down to simple cause and effect in The Turn of the Screw and there’s no easy separation of rational and supernatural. All of what happens could be caused by the projections of the mind of the Governess, her behaviour, repression, suspicion and hysteria (heighted by stories told to her by housekeeper Mrs Grose) and her desire to protect the innocence of the children from baser adult desires (that she herself is subject to), in turn creating its own pernicious stifling repressive atmosphere. Or it could indeed be that she and the children do indeed operate under the influence of past events instigated by Quint and Miss Jessel, who are shown as ghosts and apparitions who appear throughout the work and seem to interact with the children, awakening troubling memories.

Screw

The Turn of the Screw is by no means then an easy work on a narrative or musical level, particularly for a newer audience in a non-traditional venue for an opera, but the power of the work and its ability to provoke and unsettle can surely be felt by anyone. It’s not just about creating effects with half-glimpsed apparitions in dark rooms, but it’s rather in the haunting motifs of the score and the singing that other ambiguities and unsettling ideas are suggested. If the set designed by Annemarie Woods for the NI Opera production tended towards functional minimalism, and the direction of Oliver Mears didn’t seem to attempt to add any new conceptual spin to the story, it was all the more to allow the score to speak of these ambiguities itself and not point the listener towards any safe or easy conclusion.

The sets in fact, were highly effective, not only suggesting mood and location with the shifting of walls, doors and windows, but in their arrangement being capable of opening up space or closing it down with suffocating angles. Mears directorial touches did emphasise some unnatural closeness developing in the physical contact between the Governess and Miles, but this relationship with the younger boy is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of the work, certainly in as far as it concerns Britten and his own inclinations (or indeed those of Henry James), and it shouldn’t be overlooked. At the same time, it didn’t attempt to impose a definitive reading, and it’s left – as it should be – to each member of the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Turn of the Screw can indeed be just a ghost story if that’s all you want to see in it, and Britten’s music can be seen as purely spectrally unsettling as well as being suggestive of other abstract notions and concepts.

While the score – brilliantly performed by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Chalmers – and the setting for the drama provided much to consider in its own terms, they were most successful in the relationship it formed with the singers. Really, the singing in all the principal roles was beyond reproach, with Fiona Murphy pushing all the ambiguities of the role of the Governess with some fine singing, Andrew Tortise a seductively dangerous Quint, and Giselle Allen reprising the role of Miss Jessel that she performed last year to such powerful effect at Glyndebourne. Yvonne Howard however deserves special mention for Mrs Grose, one of the best singers I’ve heard in the role. The children also, critical to the whole ambiguity between innocence and experience in the opera were, were played well by Lucia Vernon and particularly young Thomas Copeland, who sang Miles wonderfully, his refrain of ‘Malo’ simultaneously wistful, regretful and sinister, and his famous condemnation of Quint at the finale was powerfully effective.