19 Feb 2020

Opera North deliver a chilling Turn of the Screw

Storm Dennis posed no disruption to this revival of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, first unveiled at Leeds Grand Theatre in 2010, but there was plenty of emotional turbulence.

Ambiguity lies at the heart of Henry James’s ghost story, a tale that’s grist to the mill for imaginative directors, especially those willing to add new layers of suggestion. James’s novella is far more than the blurred lines arising from the presence of ghostly apparitions (made explicit here) or the absence of moral absolutes. It’s a world of half lights and shadows (thanks to Matthew Haskins’s atmospheric lighting effects) and tacit implications which, under Alessandro Talevi’s insightful direction, invite even more disturbing interpretations. Myfanwy Piper's libretto (disappointingly rendered without the benefit of surtitles) and Britten’s perfectly matched music insinuates itself into our collective consciousness, which, to borrow from the original Prologue, “won’t tell … in any literal, vulgar way”.

Madeleine Boyd’s Gothic-influenced, semi-lit set (a bedroom cum nursery somewhere in the 1920s) is furnished with a four-poster bed, rocking horse and writing desk with surrounding Romanesque portico, elevated turret and opaque church windows. Within Bly’s gloomy mansion a new governess is entrusted to educate two orphaned children Miles and Flora whose souls are ‘taken’ by the ghosts of a servant and a previous governess. Should we believe the children are possessed by evil spirits or tarnished by abuse? To what extent does the Governess herself want to possess the children, not just protect them?

Like the church windows, nothing is clear, yet Talevi ramps up the work’s sinister malevolence with more than a hint of sexual nuance - its presence only veiled by the author but here implicit not just by the presence of the stage-dominating bed but through the interactions of the protagonists. Above its covers Flora manipulates puppet versions of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint whose actions leave little to the imagination, a half-naked Miles slides between the sheets suggestively after forcibly kissing the Governess at the close of Act One, and by the same bed she and Mrs Grose have a lingering embrace just a little too long not to raise eyebrows. If that’s not enough, a visibly pregnant ghost of Miss Jessel appears to have lesbian eyes for the Governess.

This “anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage” is played and sung with much subtlety by Sarah Tynan. Her increasing trauma is clear, but at times there could have been more dramatic presence. Emotionally derailed by the first appearance of Nicholas Watts’s corrosive Peter Quint, she goes n to make a believable portrayal of vulnerability and meets Britten’s vocal challenges with fulsome tone, delivering a moving rendition of the letter-writing scene (its lush music clearly indicative of her feelings for the children’s uncle).

Nicholas Watts sets the standard vocally with a burnished account of the Prologue, the composer tellingly accompanying his chilling yearnings for Miles with bright celeste tones which simultaneously appeal and repel. Watts co-conspirator Eleanor Dennis is a compelling Miss Jessel, forming a superb partnership in the “Ceremony of Innocence” duet. Heather Shipp excels as the naive and over-burdened Mrs Grose, bringing to the role ample tones and a strong presence, her nerves calmed by a hip flask following the initial revelations about Quint.

Jennifer Clark and Tim Gasiorek are both well defined as the children, outwardly charming, but able to unsettle the most robust of Governesses. Their traversal from blameless innocents to wily conspirators is wholly convincing as are well-matched voices that impress memorably in Act Two’s “Benedicite”. Less convincing is the absurd dance movements given to Gasiorek here replacing the usual piano practice scene. Perhaps most unnerving is the closing encounter between him and an identically dressed Quint doing battle for this soul where the sense of menace reaches well beyond the stage.

Below stage the thirteen instrumentalists of the Orchestra of Opera North deliver alert and well projected playing under Leo McFall’s efficient direction. Details will sharpen up in time, but this opening night held considerable promise for forthcoming performances. The production is to be streamed ‘live’ from the Grand Theatre onwww.operavision.eu on Friday 21 st February and will be available to view for a further six months.

David Truslove

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

The Governess - Sarah Tynan, Mrs Grose - Heather Shipp, Peter Quint - Nicholas Watts, Miss Jessel - Eleanor Dennis, Miles - Tim Gasiorek, Flora - Jennifer Clark, Conductor - Leo McFall, Director - Alessandro Talevi, Set & Costume Designer - Madeleine Boyd, Lighting Designer - Matthew Haskins, Orchestra of Opera North.

Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre; Saturday 15th February 2020.