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S & H Opera Review

Britten: Turn of the Screw, ROH, Covent Garden, January 2002 (BK)


Ambiguity lies at the heart of this chamber opera, first performed by the English Opera Group in 1954 under the composer as part of the Venice Biennial, at Teatro la Fenice. Based on Henry James’ novella - with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper - it is probably the composer’s greatest operatic achievement, pace ‘Grimes’ and ‘Budd’ and, as shown in this performance, seems to come closest to an analysis of Britten’s own emotional psyche: indeed, it confronts his relationship with the singers and instrumentalists for whom the piece was written.

With only six soloists, and orchestral forces trimmed to the bone, the essential clarity of the piece is not in doubt. But, succeeding years have given rise to different attempts to ‘explain’ the text. This is rather like barking up the wrong tree: for example, the tendency of some critics to rationalise the ‘problem’ of the ghosts by attributing it to the Governess’ fevered imagination, stemming from a childish passion for the Guardian, who had employed her.

As Donald Mitchell has argued, this notion cannot be entertained, if only because the Guardian has no music of his own. In the Britten setting of the Ghost story, he should have had music if his role was to have been of importance to the drama; the theory that he plays some pivotal catalyst for the unfolding events is mistaken. Nevertheless, the work is constructed in such a way as to leave much of the action uncertain and vague, almost dream-like, and the comparison with Debussy’s masterpiece after Maeterlinck, ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ is an instructive one. Are we to take the Opera as a basic conflict between good and evil, between the Governess, on the one hand, and Peter Quint and Miss Jessel on the other? The innocence of the children, mere pawns in this struggle, is eventually corrupted, and can only be restored by the recognition of the Butler as the ‘Devil’, for which revelation Miles pays with his life. Or are all the best intentions of the Governess upon reaching Bly confounded by the seeping evil which infests the Hall, to the extent that by the end of the Opera she has become as a partner with Quint? She has progressed from her initial doubts ‘O why did I come’ to a determination of ‘Oh Miles, I cannot bear to lose you/You shall be mine, and I shall save you’, startlingly now adapting the music leitmotif of Quint.

The real struggle ultimately becomes, not the contest between good and evil, but between contrasting and conflicting aspects of the power of love. Obviously the influence of ‘Billy Budd’ is apparent, when John Claggert and Captain Vere vie for the love of the able seaman, and when neither can win him, then both conspire to Billy’s destruction. At the end of the day, there is a paradox between the clarity of the pared down orchestration and singers of ‘Screw’ on the one hand, and the ambiguity of the plot, the characterisation, and Britten’s own purpose in setting James’s text on the other. Despite these complexities, the construction of the opera is an ingenious one, based on a prologue and sixteen scenes, the statement and variations on a theme, as the ‘Screw’ turns on the lives of the characters involved.

So impressive was the cast for this revival of ‘Turn of the Screw’ at Covent Garden that one might have thought the composer was on hand to direct proceedings himself. Today, there is surely no better interpreter of the complex character of Quint than Ian Bostridge, spookily convincing as the dead butler, and truly a frightening figure: it is almost as if Britten had written the role for him, rather than Pears! With the exception of the children, the line-up was the same as in the original production: Joan Rodgers was very fine as the Governess, full of naive expectation upon arriving at Bly, only to find herself caught up in the unfolding horror; Jane Henschel as a matronly Mrs Grose, all bustle, and apparently impervious to the growing catastrophe around her; and the ghostly apparition of Miss Jessel, a wonderfully menacing performance by Vivien Tierney, enticing Flora to come to the dark other-world across the lake. But it is the two child actors that deserve the most plaudits for what are very taxing roles, admirably carried out. Normally, when ‘Screw’ is recorded for disc, Flora is played by an adult soprano (as in the Collins Classics recording, sadly now deleted, in which Eileen Hulse takes the child role) but for the stage version, we had the young Caroline Wise, a mere 12 year old, showing maturity beyond her years as the sister. As for Miles, Julian Leang, a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, is almost beyond praise, a surprisingly secure voice for a treble line all too often given to sharpness, and weakness of delivery. As he struggled with himself and the Ghost, there was no suggestion that the youngster’s voice was tiring, and his final declamation, ‘Peter Quint, you devil!’ was blood-curdling in the extreme: one hopes to hear more from him in the future.

Daniel Harding kept a tight rein on proceedings, in this his first performance at the House, stoking up the pressure until the final curtain: he certainly has matured since I saw him make his professional debut with the CBSO in the Suite ‘Miraculous Mandarin’, under the guidance of Simon Rattle in 1994. I have long been a fan of the director Deborah Warner’s work on the stage, and the Proms, where she directed a memorable performance of Honneger’s ‘Jeanne d’Arc au bucher’ with Fiona Shaw. She did not disappoint on this occasion: her approach was all shadow, dimly lit, suiting the dark, ghostly mood of the Opera, and a distinct improvement on recent productions at the Royal Opera House, which have been all too dire. All in all, a very enjoyable haunted night out at Covent Garden.

Ben Killeen


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