“Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think that evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.” Thus Henry James on his novella, writing what could almost be advice to directors of Britten’s operatic version of The Turn of the Screw – advice well taken by Louisa Muller, who has given Garsington yet another hit with this spare, direct production, free of gimmick but strong on imagination.
The orchestra, which as Britten said “…is the story,” was sympathetically conducted by Richard Farnes; made up of members of the very fine Garsington Opera Orchestra, this small group evoked every shiver of the atmosphere Britten required. Ed Lyon was a superb Prologue / Peter Quint, menacing in his threats but enthralling in his temptation of Miles – the suggestion of an attraction between him and the Governess was tellingly done.
We first heard Sophie Bevan as Flora in the 2003 production at the Royal College of Music, where she was a second year student, and predicted then that her future would be worth following. Her Governess was passionately sung whilst never neglecting the music’s subtlety, and her assumption of the role was completely convincing. Katherine Broderick’s Miss Jessel was a finely tragic figure, sung with clarity and pathos, but one would have liked to have seen her at the desk at the start of the third part of the second act.
Kathleen Wilkinson might have been singing Brünnhilde, so piercing was her tone and ample her volume. The decision to costume all three women in variants of Queen Victoria’s mourning weeds lent an added sombreness to the stage picture, and presumably was intended to show the similarities between them, but at times they resembled the Three Ladies from Die Zäuberflöte.
The children are presented as innocent for much longer than in other productions, and that innocence is powerfully shown in Leo Jemison’s Miles, at only eleven years old already a star both in terms of his crystalline singing and his poised stage presence. Adrianna Forbes-Dorant is perhaps a little mature for Miles’ younger sister, but she too convinced as an impressionable but troubled child.
Christopher Oram’s elegant set made exquisite use of the glass pavilion’s surroundings, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting showed that you do not need crepuscular gloom in order to evoke an atmosphere of increasing fear and obsession. Is the governess imagining the ghosts? Does she ‘become’ Miss Jessel as she walks into the lake? Is the corruption which drowns ‘the ceremony of innocence’ a sexual one? In this production, nothing is explicitly stated – instead, we are allowed, as James suggested, to use our own imaginations and experiences in our interpretation of this endlessly fascinating work.