This exemplary performance of Britten’s disturbing chamber opera The Turn of the Screw left me feeling shell-shocked and disturbed, and after several recent unsatisfactory visits to the opera, rejuvenated with enthusiasm for the art-form. My belief that when opera’s this good nothing can compare to it was well and truly restored.
Singing, staging and playing were of such an indivisibly high standard that as an entity its visceral impact was pole-axing. Rarely this year have I had the privilege to attend a performance where everything was nigh on perfect, but Glyndebourne have achieved the impossible and not only made me look at Britten’s opera with a completely different perspective, but listen to it anew as well.
Jonathan Kent updates the work to the 1950s, and within Paul Brown’s acutely detailed designs creates a sinister world of ambiguity where nothing is quite as it seems. Some critics have questioned the aesthetic, that it is too sterile but for me it was a welcome relief to have all the Gothic trappings dispensed with for once, so that you could concentrate on the real horror that was presented – namely seemingly benign and normal people driven to carrying out unspeakable acts. The work can often become a bit ‘Hammer House of Horror’ with the two ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel becoming Nosferatu-like ghouls. That’s all too easy.
Here, as played by Toby Spence on spell-binding form, Quint comes across as a respectable, attractive, suited and booted individual. For me that makes him all the more dangerous, no more so in the final scene of the first Act where we find Miles taking a bath – the sexual overtones are palpable and I’ve never found this scene so shocking as it was here. What Kent is rightly telling us is that predatory individuals are not always of the raincoat-wearing variety found loitering around school playgrounds, but the very innocuous ‘normal’ looking people. Spence portrayed this take on Quint brilliantly, and sang with a languid ease, making the most of Britten’s tricky melismas – his Vere at ENO next year should be a knock-out.
Miah Persson was one of the best acted and sung Governesses I’ve seen. It was only noticeable once or twice that she was not a native English-speaker – she pointed the text fabulously and her diction was superb, and her singing was at turns febrile, determined and abandoned. Susan Bickley was a tower of strength as Mrs Grosse whilst Giselle Allen’s ‘lady of the lake’ Miss Jessel sent shivers down the spine.
Both the children were outstanding, Joanna Songi was a knowing Flora whilst 12 year old Thomas Parfitt was a revelatory Miles providing superb singing allied to incredibly mature acting. Jakub Hrùša’s conducing of the 13 instrumentalist of the LPO was insightful and meticulous in detail, bringing out many strands of orchestral colour I’d not heard in this fascinating score before. The playing was beyond reproach. All in all this was an unforgettable performance of Britten’s most original and disturbing opera and one that will linger long in the memory.