An all-round artistic triumph, the ENO’s new production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw represents the company’s long-anticipated and badly-needed return to form. With just six performances, it may not prove a banker but it certainly balances the books in terms of creative integrity after a run of poor shows. It is nothing less than a must-see for anyone wanting a stimulating if disquieting night of opera.
Riveting from beginning to end, David McVicar‘s production, first seen at the Mariinsky Theatre last year, is an incisive and delicate drawing out of the rich themes in Henry James novella, brilliantly adapted by Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper. The cast is magnificent: Rebecca Evans‘ desperate Governess, Ann Murray‘s helpless Mrs Grose and a creepy drowned Miss Jessel from Cheryl Barker, all sung with great beauty and clarity. Timothy Robinson‘s insidious Peter Quint (doubled with the Prologue) is equally stunning and this is a peak performance by a singer (seen at the Coliseum as Vere in Billy Budd a couple of seasons ago) who has progressively grown stronger in recent years.
The beauty of Britten’s writing and the taut poetry of Piper’s text contrast with the dark, dark undercurrents of James’ story, infused with the composer’s obsessive life-long cogitation on corrupted innocence. Accordingly, the stunning stage pictures conjured up by Tanya McCallin‘s designs and Adam Silverman‘s lighting, show points of light looming out of blackness in a monochrome world pitched somewhere between reality and nightmare. When the Governess encounters the ghostly Miss Jessel seated at her desk, the latter appears more corporeal than the insubstantial living figure, washed out by a stark downshaft of light.
Ambiguity abounds, with the line between subjective experience and objective reality blurred; it’s not at all clear whether the spectres are real or figments of a sexually-repressed imagination. McVicar adds some shocking actions that muddy the waters further, emphasising the implied paedophilic back-story and playing on the Governess’s own sexual confusion.
McVicar centres his production around the young Miles. Evans’ Governess has an immediate affinity with the boy, to the exclusion of his sister who is left out in the cold, fighting for attention. George Longworth – so impressive in the Royal Opera’s Pellas et Mlisande earlier in the year – sings and acts superlatively. Guildhall student Nazan Fikret‘s portrayal of Flora is no less vivid. In the excruciating scene with the ghosts at the end of the first act, her undressing before them is as disturbing as anything you’re likely to see on stage. Miles’ cry of “I am bad, I am bad, aren’t I?” – linking back to the first thing he hears the Governess say about him – is heart-breaking, the abused taking on the sin of the abuser. Inadvertently, the Governess has compounded the damage done to the boy and her “Together we have destroyed him” at the end could as easily be said to Quint as to Miles. Brilliant. This isn’t a clear-cut case of good against evil and makes for a constantly unsettling evening.
Conductor Garry Walker, on loan from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic, could scarcely have made a more auspicious debut with the company. He leads the ENO Orchestra magnificently through Britten’s filigree chamber score.
As with Death in Venice back in the Spring, this shows the ENO as expert in producing Britten’s work, leaving us waiting impatiently for the next in their series of his complete operas.