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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of the Screw (1954)
The Governess - Miah Persson
Prologue/Peter Quint - Toby Spence
Mrs Grose - Susan Bickley
Miss Jessel - Giselle Allen
Flora - Joanna Songi
Miles - Thomas Parfitt
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša
Stage Director: Jonathan Kent
rec. live, Glyndebourne, August 2011
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio: 16:9; PCM Stereo; DTS 5.1
FRA MUSICA FRA007 [111:00 (opera); 22:00 (extras)]

This isn’t strictly a release for the Britten centenary; it was filmed in 2011 and released in 2012. It is, however, an exciting and tremendously compelling version of Britten’s most tautly constructed opera. Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production has become something of a classic on the Downs, and it is captured brilliantly here with sensitive camera direction and a top notch cast.
 
Kent’s production works through implication and shadow, suggesting scenes with a minimum of means. His stage contains two counter-revolving discs - a literal Turning of the Screw, as he suggests in one of the extra films. These allow scenery to glide in and out of the stage picture mysteriously. The central piece of stage machinery is an enormous set of glass panes which is tilted, revolved, lifted and dropped to suggest a huge range of possibilities - most impressively, the lake in which Miss Jessel drowned. It also acts as the boundary between the interior, safe world of the house and the dangerous, exterior world of the grounds and the ghosts. This avoidance of the concrete elements in the staging allows the story to float from scene to scene with the ethereal quality of the ghosts themselves, and Kent is a master of evoking a particular mood. We are struck by this in the Tower scene of the first act, for example, when Quint first appears: all we see of him is a shadow looming in the background. It also registers in the final scene of Act 1, when the ghosts first appear and the effect is genuinely uncanny. Quint appears silhouetted against the backdrop, singing his haunting melismas to the young Miles. He then lifts him out of the bath and drapes him in a towel. Kent goes further than any director I have seen in making explicit the suggestion of paedophilia in the text, and it’s genuinely distasteful to watch, made all the more so by how events in the news have raised the subject so high in the UK’s national consciousness. He sets the production in the 1950s, the time of the opera’s creation. The first scene has a lovely touch in showing the Governess arriving at Bly on a train rather than by coach. Kent explains that, for him, the 1950s is the last time when you could convincingly argue that Britain was going through a period of innocence. The corruption of this generally innocent mood mirrors the corruption of the two children.
 
Kent has at his disposal a first-rate cast who are actors every bit as much as they are singers. The element of dramatic terror is so important in giving this opera its power, and everyone delivers at the top of their game. In the Prologue, Toby Spence is a curious, fairly affable narrator and we see him plundering through the evidence before he begins to tell the story. He then transforms himself into a genuinely creepy Quint, who seems to get an eerie thrill of pleasure out of his physical contact with Miles. Spence’s portrayal gains its power from a vocal tone that manages to combine alluring beauty with a palpable sense of threat. He is the finest Quint I have come across since Ian Bostridge (high praise!) and he treads the ambivalent line between seduction and terror with astounding skill. His fellow ghost is a less interesting character. Giselle Allen, however, sings her part with a mixture of hysteria and forlorn loss. She even manages to evoke some sympathy for Miss Jessel who was, after all, led astray by Quint every bit as much as the children were.
 
Thomas Parfitt is an astounding Miles, so compelling that I feared for his psychological health while I was watching him! His innocence in the earlier scenes gradually melts away. In the manner of the finest horror films, he has a creepy way of looking out from under his brow in a way that suggests that he knows far more than he is letting on. He seems to be physically interested in the governess in a way that is far from healthy, but he retains enough of the childlike side to his character right through to the final scene, in spite of the all-too-adult implications of what has been going on elsewhere. Vocally speaking he is also very assured. His interactions with all the other members of the cast are compelling and memorable and his Malo solo is ethereal and suggestive. There is also a penetrating quality to his treble that would make you notice him even if he were not the focus of so much of the story. Joanna Songi is very good as Flora, but it somewhat undermines the production’s power by casting an adult soprano in the role. Susan Bickley puts in a very good turn as Mrs Grose, though, and when she first tells the Governess of Quint’s past the power of the climax is remarkable.
 
At the centre of the action, Miah Persson’s Governess is a triumph. Persson has completely bought into the story and Kent’s interpretation of it. She charts the character’s descent into paranoia and self-absorption with remarkable skill. You feel her nerves as she sits in the train carriage in the opening scene. You sense her optimism as she walks in the gardens of Bly in Scene 4, something dramatically offset by Quint’s appearance. She gives a powerful sense of the Governess losing control: she already seems unable to handle her situation by the Church scene of the second act, and her remonstration with Miss Jessel in the bedroom seems like fruitless folly. However, Persson and Kent also remind us that the Governess’s moral fervour and self-determination are every bit as responsible for Miles’ desperate state as Quint is. The final tableau of Act 1 sees her possessively wrapping Miles up in her own dressing gown. The final scene, where she and Quint seem to struggle for victory over Miles, resembles a wrestling match at times. Kent reminds us that Miles’ final words - “you devil!” - could be directed at either Quint or the Governess. Persson brilliantly convinces us of Persson’s culpability in Miles’ doom.
 
In the pit the reduced forces of the LPO play with startling transparency, and Jakub Hrůša summons up a shimmering, kaleidoscopic sound-world that sets off Britten’s score in the best possible light. The presentation and packaging are also luxurious and attractive, with some beautiful production photos in the high quality booklet, though I was a little irritated that this was stapled to the DVD container so that you couldn’t remove it to read it. Don’t let this put you off, though. For me, the finest Screw is Daniel Harding’s Virgin Classics recording on CD, but if you want a DVD you’ll be hard pressed to beat this one for its outstanding musical values and for a brilliant sense of drama that will pin you to your seat.

Simon Thompson



see also review by Michael Greenhalgh (March 2013 Recording of the Month)

Britten discography & review index



Experience Classicsonline