Britten in the Park – a company first

Opera Holland Park stages ”The Turn of the Screw” alongside its customary Puccini and Bellini

Centenary year plus one and the Britten bubble shows no signs of bursting. There’s a Peter Grimes here (Grange Park Opera), an Owen Wingrave there (Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals), a Death in Venice promised for Garsington in 2015 – and that’s in opera alone.

Publicity artwork for The Turn of the Screw (OHP)
Artwork for The Turn of the Screw (OHP)

As for The Turn of the Screw, a piece of quintessential Britten on a theme of innocence corrupted that is, for many admirers, his abiding masterpiece, there are no fewer than three imminent professional accounts to choose from. On 5 and 6 July Nevill Holt Opera in Leicestershire are presenting a new production by Oliver Mears with Susanna Hurrell and Andrew Tortise, while in October-November Glyndebourne will be touring the much-admired Jonathan Kent staging with a cast led by Natalya Romaniw and Anthony Gregory.

The third Screw is remarkable for being the least expected, because Opera Holland Park, famous for its diet (by no means exclusive) of Italian opera, has chosen it as the company's first-ever Britten production. It opens on Tuesday 1 July and the conductor is none other than Steuart Bedford, Britten’s own protégé and the foremost living interpreter of his operas.

Steuart Bedford
Steuart Bedford
© Paul Mitchell

Bedford, who will conduct the City of London Sinfonia, is working again with designer Leslie Travers, creator of the sprawling set for Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach last year (as well as OHP’s Eugene Onegin in 2012, for which I described his striking designs as "Chekhov meets Pasternak"). OHP regular Annilese Miskimmon directs.

The obvious question for producer James Clutton is: why now? "I’ve wanted to do a Britten production for a few years now. Neither [general manager] Mike Volpe nor I were massive fans, except for Interludes from Peter Grimes – I’ve always loved those – but I have come to appreciate the works more and more over the last few years. I’m particularly drawn to The Turn of the Screw because of its atmosphere.

"We left Britten alone last year because everyone else was doing him for the centenary and did Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna instead! That was our big challenge in 2013: so many singers, massive chorus, extras, large orchestra, onstage bands; but for me The Turn of the Screw is every bit as big a deal. Just because the forces are smaller that doesn't make it easier. It needs such attention to detail, which is why I chose Annilese to direct. She’s a fantastic director who is wonderful to work with but also very clear and scrupulous over the finer points.

"I have always believed that a big part of my job is to build the right team for each project. I am not the world's expert on Britten's music but it’s fair to say that Steuart Bedford is. (He is also good for a story on ‘Benji’, as he calls him.) I felt we needed not only a fabulous conductor but also someone with gravitas and who would carry weight with Britten experts, and we were lucky that our timings fitted into his schedule."

One unusual aspect of the OHP Turn of the Screw is that the roles of the Prologue and the ghostly Peter Quint will be sung by two different singers. There are precedents for this, not least on Colin Davis’s recording (which formed the soundtrack to Petr Weigl’s film) where Philip Langridge and Robert Tear share the honours; but it is comparatively rare, so it will be interesting to see what the Miskimmon has in mind.

'None of us knew Brenden Gunnell but we wanted him straight away'

A few precious clues about the concept have begun to seep out from the rehearsal room. It begins in a boys’ boarding school during in 1954 (the year of the opera’s writing) where the ‘Prologue’ is a teacher telling the story to his class. We then go back to the 1890s, with the arrival of the Governess at Bly – the same building earlier in its history – but that doesn’t mean we’re finished with the fifties…

Brenden Gunnell
Brenden Gunnell

Robin Tritschler, who sings the Prologue, is fast-rising BBC New Generation artist, while his fellow-tenor, the 30-year-old American Brenden Gunnell, has captured the excitement of everyone at Holland Park, especially Clutton. "When we saw Brenden in auditions none of us knew him, but we wanted him straight away. He has an amazing voice and presence, and this will be his London debut so we’re really excited to see people discover him". Gunnell will be back in the UK in 2015 to make his Glyndebourne debut in a major Mozart role.

Alongside Ellie Laugharne‘s Governess and Elin Pritchard‘s Miss Jessel, the third female lead in the Screw has given the company a headache, albeit one with a happy outcome. Anne Mason has had to withdraw on doctor’s orders from singing Mrs Grose, the housekeeper at Bly (a role she is also scheduled to sing for Glyndebourne this autumn). Fortunately for OHP – and for us – no less an artist than Diana Montague was able to step in very late in the day and now joins her son Huw Montague Rendall, a member of the Chorus for Norma and Adriana Lecouvreur, for an unusually varied summer of opera amid the verdant gardens of Kensington and Chelsea.

Britten's The Turn of the Screw is performed at Holland Park on 1. 3, 5, 9 and 10 July