Turn of the Screw, Britten

English National Opera

22nd October, 2009

Not Knowing

Last Thursday, to prepare us all for Halloween, ENO opened Britten’s Turn of the Screw; a revival production from the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The evening left one with chills and a renewed awe of Benjamin Britten.

Based on the Henry James novella, this story scares us not with its ghosts, not with evil deeds, nor even the death of the boy Miles, but more with its ambiguity: one could lose sense of what is real. The story is told from the eyes of a young governess who looks after two children in the countryside estate of a young man we never meet. Her reality is slowly transformed, as two ghosts, those of former manservant Peter Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel, appear to possess the children. The story culminates as the boy Miles dies after saying Peter Quint’s name.

Approaching this piece, it seems a production has three choices: one, the ghosts are real; two, the governess is crazy; three, the ghosts could be real and the governess could be crazy. If one chooses the first choice, the prologue should be sung not by the tenor but spoken by Vincent Price – and Scooby Doo should appear on stage at some point. If the governess is obviously crazy, subtlety is lost and it is not ‘a curious story’. One could argue that the third choice is a cop out. Yet, the not knowing is indeed a choice, and without doubt, the most terrifying.

The story transforms the familiar into the terrifying, and Britten follows suit with the overall form based on this concept. The ‘Screw’ theme, introduced as the story begins on the first orchestral entrance, transforms familiar perfect fourths into a worrying twelve note clash as they are consecutively stacked on top of one another. As the Governess loses her sense of reality, the tonal world is distorted; the opera becomes increasingly chromatic. It seems clear that a successful production of this opera should align itself with the work of Britten and James, transforming the familiar into the terrifying.

Photos by: Clive Barda

As the prologue began, it struck me how acoustic-friendly designer Tanya McCallin’s set was; with glass-paned backdrops and a wooden rake, it provided a surprising intimacy to the Coliseum. Singers were able to face directly upstage and be easily heard in this 2,300 seat house. (One wonders why all sets are not designed with serious thought given to acoustic.)

That being said, one wanted more from this set. As the setting shifts from the train to the house to the church, one had no sense of place or time, or more importantly, how the Governess’ reality was shifting. The rake was a drab black with ever-present dead leaves downstage regardless of the scene. Because it was foreboding to begin with, there was no transformation, and the curious story was reduced to spooky.

However, director David McVicar’s telling of the story was much appreciated, leaving room for ambiguity as James and Britten do. Details in the relationships kept the drama taut and plausible. For instance, it was clear that the Governess preferred Miles and that Flora felt left out; for that reason, it made sense that Flora would lose it in Act II. Librettist Myfanwy Piper and Britten depart from the James telling in Act II, scene 1, adding a scene with just the two ghosts, thus creating an inherent interpretive challenge with the piece. Mr. McVicar addresses this challenge, wisely keeping the Governess onstage, allowing for the possibility that the ghosts are only in her mind.

Details in the characters of Quint and Miles were less satisfying. One was not convinced that Peter Quint (Michael Colvin), who ‘made free with everyone’, who is said to have had everyone in the house ‘wrapped around his little finger’, would hunch around like Quasimodo as he did. Miles, played by Charlie Manton, was most convincing in his natural moments, when he just looked like a normal little boy. Sharp head turns and some staging that appeared stylized to make the boy ‘scary’ distracted from the simple terror of the boy’s singing voice. If Miles is weird, and sings ‘Malo, malo’, it’s par for the course - he’s weird and he sings weird songs. If Miles behaves like a normal little boy and suddenly sings a song like ‘Malo, malo’, it holds weight.

The performance of Rebecca Evans as the Governess was inspired, committed and very satisfying. Ah the innocent sound! Her light lyric colour alone made one want to help the Governess and therefore enter into her struggle with the ghosts, with the children, and with reality. In contrast to this helpless-birdlike quality, the sound of her guttural cry near the end of Act II when she realizes she is alone was heartbreaking. Ultimately, we rely on the Governess to carry the opera, and Ms. Evans delivered.

Nazran Fikret as Flora deserves special mention. With a voice ideal for the role and a captivating presence as an actress, she found more depth in the role of Flora than this reviewer thought possible. Cheryl Barker was a fine Miss Jessel with a haunting and memorable sound. Though Ann Murray did sing a first-rate Mrs. Grose, a more emotionally detached performance might have been more succesful. Although she sings ‘Dear God!’ constantly, the more matter-of-fact and unfeeling Mrs. Grose is, the more one can believe that the Governess is truly alone.

At the end of the performance, Maestro Sir Charles Mackerras was honoured for his enormous body of work with ENO. Shocking facts: he last conducted this piece in London in 1956; he began work with the company sixty-three years ago! Twelve members of the ENO Orchestra formed our band for the evening. Together with Maestro Mackerras we were in good hands. Britten’s details were not lost: the muted timpani in the journey of the Governess, the birdlike woodwinds, the raucous syncopated oompah-pah of ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’, that bizarre low tremolo of the bassoon and flute, the dreadful pizzicato passacaglia in the final scene all played superbly to the horrible end. Kudos also to the maestro, assuming it was he who insisted on the excellent diction we heard all evening.

Nothing to do with the opera, yet worthy of mention was a moment in the last orchestral variation when the opera became all about the timpani. Mr. William Lockhart whacked the timpani like his life depended on it producing such a thunder that an audience member became enraged and yelled something that sounded like,"Aahrraoudaj". I’m sure it wasn’t a compliment. I doubt that Britten wrote fffff at that moment. It was the loudest sound in the world and, inexplicably, I loved it.

“This particular story arouses the wildest disagreements of interpretation,” Britten wrote. Both Britten and James knew this story to be much more than a ghost story. They knew that even if the known is a ghost, the unknown holds infinitely more horror. The spooky set was disappointing, but the committed performances, smart stage direction, and experienced hand of the Maestro made this evening worthy of this masterpiece.

Bottom line: Unsettled, unsure, unnerved - success.


Lewis Marceau


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Revival production of the Marinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras
Director: David McVicar
Designer: Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman
Movement Director: Andrew George
Hair & Makeup: Helen Wake


Governess: Rebecca Evans
MIles: Charlie Manton
Flora: Nazan Fikret
Mrs. Grose: Ann Muray
The Prologue and Peter Quint: Michael Colvin
Miss Jessel: Cheryl Barker