Although Opera Holland Park can boast a rich history, it has not previously tackled a work by Benjamin Britten. If this is because the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini are seen as better suited to providing the type of entertainment required of a warm summer’s evening, Annilese Miskimmon’s production of The Turn of the Screw proves that the park at night, against the backdrop of the ruined Holland House, can be an effective setting for the eeriest of dramas.
All performances are planned to start at 8pm, which enables Act I to occur in daylight and Act II after sunset. In general terms, this reflects the continuous descent towards ever greater fear, anguish and madness. With, however, each half specifically taking place in either the light or dark, the interval represents something of a watershed after which the mood changes quite dramatically.
The most intriguing innovation is that the Prologue is sung not by Peter Quint, but rather by a new character (played by Robin Tritschler) who then assumes a silent acting role teaching young schoolboys for the remainder of the evening. If anything, Tritschler is not another incarnation of Quint but rather a metaphorical representation of Miles as an adult. As he takes a shine to one particular pupil, the implication is that he is sustaining whatever he once underwent himself. Of course, Miles could not physically do this, because he died as a child, but the step universalises the issue of temptation by moving it beyond one specific incident in time.
Leslie Travers’ set consists of one long classroom, complete with desks, chairs and blackboard. It is, however, a flexible area that equally represents Bly House, while light shining through the backdrop of huge, heavy cupboards can turn them into (for example) the train carriage that initially carries the Governess to the house. Miskimmon references both Henry James’ and Britten’s own times, suggesting that ‘Many houses became pubic schools – places where sexual abuse was ignored or tacitly permitted’. In this way, different scenes and times are overlaid by seeing Tritschler teaching the children at school in the same area as the Governess interacts with Miles and Flora at home, again highlighting the universality of the themes.
In Act I the issue of temptation is innovatively explored to the point where it is almost equated with enlightenment. The notion of education takes on a key role with the dry lists of Latin demanded from the Governess contrasting with the ‘knowledge’ seemingly offered by Quint, and indeed Tritschler as he displays a map of the entire world. In Act I at least, Miss Jessel seems to be Quint’s equal and active partner, as opposed to one who was tempted and destroyed by him, and the relatively large age gap between the performers playing Miles and Flora also has an effect. The boy seems so young that he has no independent understanding of his own with which to withstand Quint’s advances, but there does seem to be something of a willing contract between the girl and Miss Jessel.
All this changes, however, after the interval when the story of corrupting innocence is told rather more conventionally, though no less powerfully. If, given the innovations in Act I, this feels disappointingly conservative, it is necessary for several reasons. One does not want to emerge from an evening like this feeling that child abuse might have been condoned in any way whatsoever, and the alteration ties in with the fading of outdoor light. Performed in the sun, Act I promotes knowledge as a form of enlightenment, while Act II mounted under the moon reveals its darker side.
The attention to detail also remains strong. For example, to emphasise the notion of inevitability, Miles’ crazed hand has repeatedly chalked Malo on the board, revealing quite literally how the writing is on the wall. He similarly draws a door on the board as if trying to create a point through which Quint can enter from another world. By the time the Governess has wiped it off, he is already through.
Britten expert Steuart Bedford is in sure command of the City of London Sinfonia, and the area’s layout and acoustic prove highly suited to the score. The small orchestral forces and haunting nature of the music, combined with the fact that the orchestra ‘pit’ is not sunken at all, ensure that the sound is immediate and crystal clear, but does not drown out the singers.
From the outset Ellie Laugherne brings an appropriate sense of feeling and concern to the Governess as she applies tenderness and subtlety to a sound possessed of brilliant clarity. Diana Montague, replacing Anne Mason for the entire run, has exactly the right voice and sense of anguish required to carry off the role of Mrs Grose, while there is a rich vibrancy to Elin Pritchard’s splendid Miss Jessel.
Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas excel as the children, with Lynch’s voice conveying sweet, childish innocence and contrasting well with Lomas’ more fully-fledged sound. As Peter Quint, Brenden Gunnell’s vocal output is passable rather than outstanding, but he has a strong eerie presence as he ironically conducts Miles’s piano playing. Robin Tritschler masters his silent gestures well throughout, although to hear him sing no more than the Prologue does feel rather a waste of a good tenor.
The Christine Collins Young Artists performance, featuring a different cast, is on 10 July.
After each performance there is the opportunity to join a ghost walk around Holland Park. A joint ticket for the opera and walk is available. For further details click here.