The best productions of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw are those that manage to do two contradictory things. On the one hand, they bring a sense of inevitability to the proceedings so that there is an overarching momentum to the evening as we feel the sickening cloud of doom hanging permanently overhead. At the same time, they lead us to believe that there are actually ways out of the problem, or even that there is not one to begin with. This is partly because this introduces the variation that sustains interest, partly because it makes what unfolds even more disconcerting when we think it did not have to be like this, but mainly because it mirrors the Governess’ own state of mind. Is she not looking for every opportunity to convince herself that the children are innocent, while also holding in her head a picture of the inescapable worst?
In Ella Marchment’s new production for Bury Court Opera this balance is achieved extraordinarily well from the start. After the Governess gets over her initial nerves and settles in, one can feel the joy that she expresses, even as the signs that all is not well are clear. In this way, the incident when she receives the school’s letter to say that Miles has been expelled is very revealing. Even as she declares she will ignore it as she cannot believe that Miles could ever be bad, he is unnervingly observing her from close quarters while forcibly preventing his sister from seeing what is happening. Then when the pair sing ‘Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,’ it is with a certain air of menace. This makes the Governess’ conclusion that the children must be completely innocent seem to arise less from what she has really witnessed, and more from what she wishes to be the case.
Bury Court Opera’s productions are presented in a converted barn, and so it was always easy to imagine how the performance might play on a small, low lit area to generate atmosphere. However, while Ben Pickersgill’s excellent lighting designs ensure that it does do this, it also succeeds in creating what very much feels like a house and home. Designer Holly Pigott sees the stage contain props that hint at a variety of rooms, although there are no walls or partitions and Miles and Flora’s bed remains particularly prominent. The original directions require Peter Quint first to be seen on a tower and then at a window, and this production not only provides a workable solution in the absence of the former, but one that proves extremely effective. Quint is first seen at the back of the stage, his face illuminated in profile as the Governess gazes across the stage the other way, only from its front. In this way, they are both staring and not staring directly at each other, which suggests that a communication between life and death is occurring, while also keeping open the possibility that this may not be real at all. Later Miles and Flora in their bed are mirrored by Quint and Miss Jessel standing at another, with lighting, curtains and slick direction enabling the latter ‘ensemble’ to appear and disappear in an instant.
The extent to which Quint and Miss Jessel seem to ‘cultivate’ the home is also impressive. A model house and book popping out of trapdoors are all that is needed to suggest that they have taken it over, and yet as soon as these objects disappear the place is back to normal again. Miss Jessel drops a doll into the bed, which Flora is later seen to be either washing or drowning in the lake. At one point the Governess disappears down a trapdoor that was used by the ghosts, highlighting how this battle for the children is taking place across the realms of life and death.
The opera involves both indoor and outdoor settings, and the necessary variation is provided here. When the family head to church, the characters stand at a brightly illuminated front of the stage, which suggests both sunlight and the fact that the house (whose interior we still see) is situated behind them. Quint’s last appearance sees him descend down the sharply tiered auditorium, while the Governess and Miles are positioned towards the back of the stage. In this way, the two adults seem to be in different realms, with the fact that Quint is far closer to us paradoxically making him seem the more real. The very final battle for Miles, however, does occur with them both at the front of the stage, thus appearing as ‘equals’ and suggesting that even at this point the encounter could go either way.
The CHROMA Ensemble, under the baton of Paul Wingfield, is on fine form, while the cast is led by Alison Rose. She played Barbarina in English National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro last year, and here her Governess really grows in stature, and her soprano in strength and nuance. She is supported by Emily Gray, whose mezzo-soprano is extremely deep and rich, as Mrs Grose, and Andrew Dickinson and Daisy Brown, who really embrace the characters of the ghosts. In true Peter Pears fashion, Dickinson plays both the Chorus and Quint, which only makes his move from Victorian-style showman to utterly sinister presence more chilling, while Gray is completely compelling as Miss Jessel. Jennifer Clark and Harry Hetherington as Flora and Miles display some highly pleasing voices, while also portraying the children as ambiguous figures who we constantly feel could be on the path of either innocence or evil. The Turn of the Screw is the final opera ever to be hosted at Bury Court Opera, but, especially when considered alongside its other 2019 production, Noah Mosley’s Aurora, the venue could not be finishing on a higher note.