Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne Festival

Glyndebourne, 25 August 2011 5  stars

Miah Persson as the Governess(Photo © Alastair Muir)The Glyndebourne Festival season this year began with a huge, magnificent, no expense spared production of Die Meistersinger and ends with a work at the other end of the operatic scale – Britten's 1954 chamber opera, based on the novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. With a cast of six (including the two children) and a chamber orchestra of 13 players, the whole enterprise would fit easily into a small ante-chapel of Saint Catherine's Church in Nuremberg. But here's the thing - The Turn of the Screw, when done with this degree of dramatic intensity on a main stage, when rehearsed, sung and played with this degree of musicality and conviction, when delivered in a production by Jonathan Kent as subtle and enigmatic as it is thought-provoking, packs just as great a punch as the grandest of grand opera. It is a musical delight and an absolute must-see.

Britten wrote his eighth opera immediately after the relative failure of Gloriana, and turned back to the scale of forces that he had employed eight years earlier for The Rape of Lucretia. The result is a tour de force of brilliantly plotted orchestral writing, each of the 13 instruments being assigned a colour, a function, a thematic identity, a chance to engage in atmospheric (and sometimes tortured and passionate) dialogue with the singers. Under the inspired baton of Jakub Hrusa – I have never previously heard him conduct with this degree of clarity, rhythmic precision and perfect balance – the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra rose magnificently to the occasion. Orchestral sound was focused, alert, sensuous whenever scene-painting was required, jagged and brooding whenever the ghosts were making their presence felt. The screw turned, and with imperceptible adjustments to dynamic levels and tone production, the orchestra described what was happening. Shattering and exhilarating at the same time. I was reminded (and looked back) at the notable misjudgement by Riccardo Malipiero, a composer/critic of the original La Fenice production, who wrote: “Is it not perhaps presumptuous to entrust the musical texture to an instrumental group of a dozen or so performers? Such things can be done only when each of the instruments achieves an expressive power such as few, very few musicians have attained up to the present day! Otherwise one risks the customary poverty of chamber orchestras!” If only Malipiero had been at Glyndebourne on Sunday night, some fifty-seven years on – he might have revised his judgement. The orchestral playing, and its essential underpinning of an inspired piece of music theatre, was simply outstanding.

What about the production? I saw it at Glyndebourne in 2007 and thought it a fine piece of work then, but it lacked the visceral power of this revival and although it impressed, it did not overwhelm. Appearances first - the basic stage construct is simple: against a neutral grey backdrop, Bly is taken apart into its constituent elements, and various of its structural and furnishing features are constantly revolved, re-assembled, propped at different angles to give us the locations that the sixteen short scenes need. Dominating centre stage is a huge wooden casement window panel in eighteen sections: twelve windows above, six glass doors below. It turns, it leans, it covers the surface of the lake: it is the transparent barrier between the two worlds of the story. The time is around Christmas: a decorated tree is fussed over by Miles and Flora, outside in the park bare boughs predominate, a pile of autumn leaves smoke and a low line of autumnal reeds comes in on the revolve to delineate the edge of the lake. All this clever design, by Paul Brown, is evocatively lit by Mark Henderson and the stage picture is clean, uncluttered and memorable. The transition from the Prologue to the train journey to Bly is particularly inspired: flickering photo images of the children reduce in size to a centre stage rectangle which suddenly becomes one of a line of train windows as the Governess travels to meet her charges for the first time – a real 'wow' moment.

The Turn of the Screw (Photo © Alastair Muir)But appearances, however striking, need characters who move well within their confines, exploit the performance space that is made available to them. Kent has obviously re-rehearsed his cast, tightened things up and steers them all brilliantly through all the ambiguities of the narrative, making Miles and Flora two high-spirited children who nevertheless – when they can get away with it – manage to suggest the potential for the evil that the Governess becomes more and more convinced is all around her.

He makes Miss Jessel, clad in black and heavily made up, look frightening and disturbing but his Peter Quint is the essence of suave normality. His former relationships in the house, whatever they may have been, no longer seem to trouble him: he lifts Miles out of the bath, wrapped in a white towel, like a friendly, protective father or uncle, and he walks everywhere with a smooth ease that shows he is completely at home. Britten himself said several times that the ghosts were real, and not merely a figment of the Governess's imagination. Kent adopts a Personenregie that allows both schools of thought to argue their respective cases. It is a terrific piece of stage direction.

Standards of singing and diction were high, but there are things to say. As Prologue and Peter Quint, Toby Spence gave an attractive, mellifluous account of the tenor role but lacked the darker edge and energy that I have heard in this part before. The role was of course written for Peter Pears and in particular for that particularly fine sound he made at the lower end of the tenor spectrum, the centre of his voice: Spence did not attack the part here, but concentrated on overall beauty of line and phrasing (which was considerable). He gave me a couple of moments to treasure – the wonderful upward semitone slide on the word “best” in the Prologue (indicating anything but) and the beautifully even sound of “I will” as he described the Governess's almost marriage vow acceptance of her new job at Bly. So I liked him, but I think he will do more with the singing of the role in future. As his fellow ghost, Miss Jessel, Gisele Allen did all that the part requires: she produced dramatic incisiveness in the double confrontation scene and sang with real vocal power, marred only slightly by some indistinct words (the performance was sur-titled and so not a line of the libretto was missed).

The children next: Miles was played by a 12 year old chorister, Thomas Parfitt, who not only sang accurately and with a pure treble tone, but also performed convincingly throughout: his interaction with his sister Flora was exuberant, eloquent and often revelatory about the childrens' characters. The nursery rhymes were vigorous and chilling at the same time. Malo, malo was as always a haunting refrain that suffuses the auditorium, but Parfitt was equally good in his list of Latin words in the masculine (a wonderful in-joke by Britten). Opposite him, Joanna Songi once again sang the role of Flora (I heard her in 2007). She has developed a powerful singing presence and the role is by now a natural for her: so she has added to her little repertoire of stage touches that indicate the nastier being that lurks within the 'innocent angel'.

That leaves us with the two women at the heart of the opera: the housekeeper Mrs Grose and the new Governess. As Mrs Grose Susan Bickley gave a simply inspired performance, probably the best account of the role that I have ever heard. Her voice (I also heard her at Snape Maltings not long ago) is now rich, expressive and perfectly in focus: her diction superb. She spat out her answers to the Governess's insistent questions and gradually she assumed the whole Angst of the developing situation, in true complicity with her interrogator. Bickley rode thrillingly over the orchestral tutti that tramp ever downwards as she sings her dear God, is there no end… and her assumption of the character was complete. As for the Governess of Miah Persson, the first thing to say is that this is a highly intelligent, carefully considered performance. Persson is a singer who projects well in solo passages, but who listens to her fellow singers and adjusts her dynamic to blend well in ensembles. She conveyed well the touching vulnerability of the Governess, the love and sympathy she felt for her charges and the mounting horror of the situation she finds herself in (without the voice hardening under stress in the higher tessitura passages, as it sometimes does). If there is one thing I could have wished for, it is more vocal colour: Persson produced a beautiful, even sound but I did not get the added warm bloom that can make passages like Bly, I begin to love you and How beautiful it is seem so utterly extraordinary. But this is a minor criticism – Persson delivered a deeply moving account of the role, and rarely have I gone into the Act One interval feeling so absolutely shattered at the conception of the piece. This was music theatre at its most thrillingly intense.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos © Alastair Muir