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Recordings

25 Apr 2005

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw

Britten biographer Humphrey Carpenter quotes a friend of the composer’s as calling Miles “a male Lolita.” For all the blather, if not bother, about innocence in The Turn of the Screw, I’ve never felt there was much of it present among the inhabitants of Bly. There’s sure a nasty case of naiveté going around among the grown-ups though.

Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw
Mark Padmore, Lisa Milne, Catrin Wyn-Davies, Diana Montague, Nicholas Kirby Johnson, Caroline Wise, City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox
Opus Arte OA 0907 D [DVD]

Britten biographer Humphrey Carpenter quotes a friend of the composer's as calling Miles "a male Lolita." For all the blather, if not bother, about innocence in The Turn of the Screw, I've never felt there was much of it present among the inhabitants of Bly. There's sure a nasty case of naiveté going around among the grown-ups though.

This new, beautifully filmed version of Britten's opera captures the sexual battle of wills for possession of the children between the hysterical (in Freud's use of that over-used--by his fellowmen--term) Governess, portrayed by Lisa Milne, and the ghosts--very real ghosts in Britten's view, not spooks conjured up from the depths of the subconscious of a girl with a crush on a dashing distant uncle. In contrast to the wonderfully spooky black-and-white version of the story with Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), here golden tones cast halos around the children, and desaturated blues point up Quint's and Miss Jessel's incorporeity, lost souls cursed with all-too-human longings.

Director Katie Mitchell filmed the opera at an English country estate, and to her and the producers' credit, the location they chose doesn't look like it's open to the American hordes every summer. Their Bly has seen better days, with a schoolroom in dire need of painting and other repairs that wouldn't be out of place in some inner-city school, and basement rooms that I wouldn't want to wander around in after dark with just an oil lamp to flesh out shapes flickering in the shadows.

Both as a dramatic and as a musical piece, this film succeeds brilliantly. Child actors can usually act or sing but not both, but Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles (slightly superior as an actor; some of his piping tones sounded under pitch) and Caroline Wise as Flora live their characters with wisdom, if not knowingness, older than their years. Both of the ghosts cast a spell on the listener: Catrin Wyn-Davies lends a tragic despondency to Miss Jessel, and Mark Padmore (they must coach every tenor to sound like Peter Pears in this role) spins the gossamer allure of Quint's deviltry--or is it just Quint's desperate longing for companionship?

My major quarrel with the film is that the director has promoted Miss Jessel to chief ghost. She makes an appearance in just about every scene, even if just in flashback to earlier shots we've had of her wandering around the lake (the female symbol in the story) or beckoning yearningly to Flora. Wyn-Davies plays the role, like Miss Jessel is described in the libretto, as a figure of higher status in real life than the valet, with a chin-held-high self-assurance that crumbles pathetically in her Miltonian confrontation with Quint at the beginning of act 2.

Quint, on the other hand, is downgraded to secondo spooko. We see him mostly peeking in at the windows like the neighborhood voyeur, and when we aren't following Miss Jessel as she mopes around the lake, Quint is shown from the shoulders down (all he needs is a jack o'lantern for a head) striding, striding, striding through the autumn leaves. In our first full-face, close-up shot when he sings his famous "The ceremony of innocence is drowned," my first thought was that the ghosts aren't getting iodized salt down in the abyss. Why would any respectable ghost go bug-eyed, especially to another ghost? Unless Hell is where bad actors go. And both Quint and Miss Jessel apparently are condemned to the circle of hell where the damned are denied hair brushes.

The tower--the male symbol in the story--is also downplayed. (Early on, Britten considered calling the opera "The Tower and the Lake"). When the Governess (well sung and acted by Milne, though I found her a little too mature for this eager-to-please young girl) tells Mrs. Gross (exquisitely portrayed by Diana Montague, projecting the character's indecision about who's really the cause of all the turmoil) that she has seen a man on the tower, here she has apparently seen someone on the roof, or perhaps in the attic. Quint doesn't call down to Miles from the tower at the end of act 1; instead, the Governess snatches the sleepwalking (?) Miles just before he steps off the roof. Maybe the producers couldn't find a decaying country house with a decent tower. In short, this version has been rethought as a confrontation between the Governess and Miss Jessel. It may work as the filmmakers' take on the story, but it certainly isn't Britten's or, God knows, Henry James's.

Another annoyance--to me, a viewer who doesn't have ADD and doesn't require constant visual stimulation--is the over-editing that's gone on. Scenes constantly cut back and forth à la Baz Luhrmann to the ghosts in their haunts, Miles playing his drum in a tree, Flora putting flowers on her mother's grave (and we get the mother in flashbacks, but not the father). Granted, the dramatically important instrumental interludes must be tricky to fill with visuals, especially in a film, when the viewer might grab the chance to run to the WC, but when a character is singing, most of us aren't in need of visual leitmotifs for a running commentary on the text, or the subtexts. This quibble aside, the director displays an expert sense of theater with small but striking bits of business: one with a bird's egg, Flora and Miles getting into mischief as Miles plays the piano, Miles when he steals the Governess's letter to his uncle.

Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite operas (I do! I do! I do! I do believe in spooks!), and despite the Women's Studies approach taken by the filmmakers, this DVD is well worth the consideration of opera lovers. Seeing the piece again got me pondering about its being one of the few musical-dramatic works to show that children can be creepy. I'd better make that Other People's children; old age and assisted care arrive all too soon. If we accept Stephen Sondheim's admonition that children may listen and learn, then we're probably seeing only something of ourselves in their creepiness. And our own ghosts.

David Anderson

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