The passage of time has added additional subtexts to Henry James’ subtle literary exercise, which created an ambiguous and suggestive story. Its supernatural suspense is generated by what the author left unsaid and undescribed, leaving readers to create a more horrifying set of images from their own fears and psychoses than any that the author could impose from without. James’ novella, originally written in 1898, was made into an opera by Britten to a libretto by Mfanwy Piper, a little over 50 years later, in 1954.
Just over 50 years further on, Britten’s opera has been produced by Jonathan Kent for Glyndebourne on Tour. What was shocking in pre-Freudian times at the turn of the century, was given an additional layer of nuance in 1954 by Britten’s closet homosexual relationship with Peter Pears, who took the part of Quint, the embodiment of evil in the plot, and Britten’s own predilection for children and particular obsession with the young David Hemmings, who took the part of the innocent boy Miles in the first production.
Moving forward to today, a further level of horror is added by our own knowledge from almost weekly news stories of paedophilia and children being groomed, fascinated, into the thrall of their abusers who beckon from beyond over the internet. Torment and seduction, innocence and corruption, power and responsibility, weakness and destruction – these are the opera’s themes.
“It is a curious story” are the opening words of Daniel Norman who sings the part of The Prologue and Peter Quint. A young Governess accepts a job secluded in a country house with two orphan children, Miles and Flora, and the express instruction not to disturb their guardian in London. Gradually she becomes aware that all is not well with her charges, a suspicion confirmed when she starts catching glimpses of what the children themselves are seeing.
For these are “the others”: the Governess’ own predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the guardian’s former valet, Quint. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, recognises Quint’s description but tells her that both have been dead for some time. The struggle for possession of the children between the Governess and the forces of evil follows, along with the continuing mystery of what went before, when Quint and Miss Jessel were still alive. We know Quint seduced the previous governess who, pregnant but betrayed, died apparently of a “broken heart”. We also learn that Quint “was free with everyone” and molested little Miles as well. Now the ghosts of “the others” seek to possess each other again through the children’s bodies; but the disgraced Quint is looking for new conquests, making the Governess’ relationship with Miles an uneasy and ambiguous one.
Much of the sinister and haunting atmosphere of this work is created by the orchestral textures of Britten’s music. Edward Gardner tautly conducted the chamber orchestra into perfection of playing and expression. Glockenspiel and celesta, harp and gongs play a prominent and luminously glimmering part amongst four strings, flutes, oboe and cor anglais, clarinets and horn. The musical structure of the opera comprises fifteen variations on a twelve-note theme; fourths and minor thirds dominate the moods and run through the score and the story, in ever changing and slightly different guises. Each of the consecutive variations represents a turn of the screw, the gradual tightening of the tension as layer after layer is peeled away from the horrible truth that blights the children. On its own, much of the music is inaccessible but its beauty lies in the contribution it makes to the imagery that we see on the stage, rather than in itself. Much of it sounds just plain weird and probably a musical training is required to appreciate its construction fully, otherwise it can – and did – seem like unduly long periods of ethereal dissonance between moments of subtle harmonic recognition.
Daniel Norman sings beguilingly and seductively. At the beginning of Act II the sheer beauty of his calling out to Miles, ululating bel-canto melismas from the shadows, convinces that he could cast a spell over the boy. When he moves his steps and gestures are hauntingly choreographed like a menacing Nosferatu. Regrettably however, neither designer nor director seems to have noticed that once out of the shadows and into the light his costume and wig combine to create a striking resemblance to one of the two tailors from The Fast Show – an image that remains hard to erase once recognised.
Kate Royal as the Governess is outstanding. The part was richly sung suggesting her fears and vulnerability, but when victory over Quint finally comes, it is at the cost of Miles’ life and her triumph turns into a concluding and heartbreaking requiem: the victim of the struggle between Good and Evil is the innocent himself. Rachel Cobb creates melodramatic impact as Miss Jessel and Anne-Marie Owens, as Mrs Grose – the Governess’ only confidante – sings with maternal warmth.
No more can be said of 12-year-old Christopher Sladdin and 17-year-old Joanna Slongi, as Miles and Flora, than that they both produce performances as good as can be imagined, matching the confidence and professionalism of the rest of the cast.
Apart from the the one flaw mentioned above and the mistaken belief by management that if the libretto is in English then surtitles are unnecessary, the design by Paul Brown, sparsely set on a double revolve within a grey walled cube, but with moving glass wall which doubles as window, skylight, and frozen lake is suggestively effective, as is the strikingly atmospheric contribution by lighting designer Mark Henderson.
A dramatically intense and thought provoking production – not the stuff of nightmares perhaps, but a haunting and lingeringly disturbing evening.