Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Turn of the Screw @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes

22 August 2011


Glyndebourne (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Some people think that Britten’s The Turn of the Screw does not need to be scary; I beg to differ, since that ‘screw’ is really all about how tightly you can be wound. Glyndebourne keeps it pretty loose, and pretty-pretty too. I must have seen this opera a dozen times, and I can still be shaken by moments such as Quint’s appearance in the Tower, Miss Jessel’s rising from the lake, and her sitting at the desk – as Henry James wrote, “…she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers”. Not one of these frisson-inducing moments had any impact on this occasion, but the musical and production values were otherwise so high that it was possible not to miss the shudders too much.

Jonathan Kent sets the production at the time of the work’s composition in the 1950s, with costumes and hairstyles straight out of a filmed version of a Richard Yates novel – one half expected Kate Winslet to hove into view. It’s a beautiful set, elegant yet oppressive, delicate yet threatening, with the loveliness of the clear glass bearing down on the principals. The cinematic effects such as the ‘moving train’ at the start worked superbly, as did the various transitions from inner/outer scenes and from drawing room to conservatory.

Toby Spence was a positively cuddly Quint – surely that ‘Old Bear’ which his Prologue stuffed into the chest, was his alter ego. I imagine that the idea was to increase the horror via his plausibility, but for me he was simply too nice – this is evil personified, according to the story and the music, yet here we saw and heard the solicitor’s very obliging junior partner, come perhaps to discuss the will – certainly not to haunt the house with his malevolent presence. Spence always sings finely but he is no villain.

Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel was brilliantly costumed, as if she could never shake off the slimy water, and she sang with hypnotic power and fascinating edge; she was never allowed to horrify, however, getting herself visibly into position for her lake apparition, and simply sitting at the desk. Susan Bickley was a credible Mrs Grose, as always with this artist making a sometimes ungrateful part her own.

The two children were believably ghastly, especially when Thomas Parfitt’s Miles ‘whipped’ his sister; I felt that Joanna Songi was a touch too mature for Flora. Miah Persson sang warmly as The Governess, and carried out the director’s concept of her as obsessed both with her employer and with the well being of the children. It was she who horrified, in a way – who would not run a mile from her madly gleaming eyes and grimly set teeth as she vowed to protect them?

In the pit, Jakob Hrŭša delivered a gripping account of the score, alive to each nuance of Britten’s writing. The eerie qualities missing in the staging were thankfully here in abundance. There are three more chances to hear members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra play so superbly for him, to experience some first class singing and to appreciate a visually striking if not viscerally frightening production: the 23rd, 26th and 28th will have few if any seats left, but Glyndebourne’s excellent Returns Club is a very good way of securing whatever may become available, sometimes at very low prices for ‘restricted’ (but still excellent) seats.

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More on Toby Spence
The Rake’s Progress @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Idomeneo @ Garsington Opera, Wormsley
Eugene Onegin @ Coliseum, London
The Turn of the Screw @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes
Faust @ Coliseum, London