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Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Michael Colvin (as Peter Quint a former man-servant) [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of the English National Opera]
26 Oct 2009

The Turn of the Screw at ENO

Shadows and reflections flicker and dart alarmingly across Tanya McCallin’s dark, gloomy sets for David McVicar’s The Turn of the Screw, first seen in 2007, in a disturbing production that chillingly conveys both infinite mystery and claustrophobic terror.

Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Governess: Rebecca Evans; Mrs Grose: Ann Murray; Peter Quint/Narrator: Michael Colvin; Miss Jessel: Cheryl Barker; Flora: Nazan Fikret; Miles: Charlie Manton. Director: David McVicar. Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Thursday 22nd October 2009.

Above: Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Michael Colvin (as Peter Quint a former man-servant)

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of the English National Opera


‘You see, I’m bad, aren’t I?’ declares Miles, teasingly, at the end of Act 1. Indeed. The ‘evil’ which James desires that his readers should merely ‘imagine’ is unambiguously paraded before our eyes by McVicar: the children romp riotously in a frenzied nursery scene; Quint glints malevolently from the Tower, and brazenly challenges a hysterical Governess; Miss Jessel wails with bitter fury, grasping at Flora in a desperate bid for Quint’s attention; the Governess rampantly suffocates the children she professes to protect.

the_turn_of_the_screw011.pngCheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Nazan Fikret (as Flora)

The dimly-lit stage suggests first the cold, charmless recesses of Bly, then the eerie expanse of the gardens and lake, as filmy, translucent screens shimmer back and forth, brushed evocatively by Adam Silverman’s subtle lighting. The occasional gleam glances on an iron bedstead, an ancient piano, a painted rocking horse, as McVicar assembles an authentically Victorian domestic world, faithfully to James’ original setting. In the shadows, servants scurry back and forth, their reflections caught in the rolling panes, hinting at other presences and snatched visions. Aware of the critical debates concerning James’ ambiguous novella, Britten declared that he wanted ‘real’ ghosts singing ‘real’ music – no symbolic groaning and shrieking! – but, one might argue that in this production the ghosts are in fact all too real: despite the presence of the sleeping Governess during their Act 2 Colloquy, these are genuine physical beings, not imagined phantoms or indefinite apparitions.

In this unequivocally corrupted world, Mrs Grose is certainly right to fear for the safety of her charges, Flora and Miles. And this was a magnificent performance by Dame Anne Murray, whose lyrical, eloquent cries convincingly conveyed the housekeeper’s heartfelt anxiety, motherly love and tremulous fear for the children’s welfare. In the ‘Letter Scene’, Murray’s clear, focused lines powerfully demonstrated her genuine concern when Miles is dismissed from his school; although the appearance of Quint’s uncanny celeste motif hints at the cause of Miles disgrace, Murray’s outpouring of relief that the Governess shares her faith that Miles cannot be truly ‘bad’ was truly touching.

Despite rather woolly diction, the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans went from strength to strength as the performance progressed. The occasional ‘catch’ in the voice was evident in the opening scene, marring for example her telling line ‘O why did I come?’; but as her confidence grew she produced some beautiful, floating curves in the upper register, subtly lingering, abstractedly, and perfectly conveying the deluded romanticism of a dreamer whose unworldliness proves more dangerous than the actual horrors she imagines. Transfigured by a single beam of light, Evans’ final, chilling wail, over the body of the dead Miles was both poignant and emotionally piercing.

Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess), Rebecca Evans (as The Governess), Nazan Fikret (as Flora) and Ann Murray (as Mrs Grose the housekeeper)

The dual role of the Narrator/Quint was performed by tenor Michael Colvin. He projected well in the Prologue, carelessly flickering through the pages of the manuscript which holds that tale, his confident, warm voice aptly conveying the nonchalance, bordering on neglect, of the handsome guardian, and also foreshadowing the seductive charm of Peter Quint himself. Quint’s first vocal utterance, his unearthly nocturnal appeal in Scene 8, ‘At Night’, slyly crept in, oozing bitter-sweet charm and building to a commanding, hypnotic plea. However, Colvin did not always capture vocally either the pernicious seductiveness or menacing malevolence of the presumptuous valet. Certainly his actions leave little room for doubt: he whips the bed clothes from the sleeping boy’s bed, lures and urges him to embrace ‘freedom’. But, it was not until the Act 2 battle between Quint and the Governess that Colvin captured the truly forceful note of desperate evil as he implored Miles to steal the letter. Cheryl Barker, as Miss Jessel, was equally compelling: she avoided overstatement and dramatic extremes, balancing menace with lyricism, indicative both of her spurned love for Quint and her despair at his betrayal.

Completing a superb cast, Charlie Manton as Miles and Nazan Fikret as Flora were outstanding, never overshadowed or out-sung by their professional partners. Manton’s Miles was certainly a match for any of the adults: effortlessly evading their attempts to constrain and curtail his burgeoning individuality and maturity. His ‘Malo song’ was beautiful in its innocence and purity, the intonation perfect and the words delivered with unaffected clarity, as the cor anglais twined sinuously around the haunting melody. And, the Act II piano-playing scene was expertly pulled off, as the precocious young boy convincingly mimed his way through an increasingly piquant sequence of piano pieces, thereby distracting his guardians and liberating Flora to flee to the arms of Miss Jessel. A final-year undergraduate at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Nazan Fikret is an experienced in this role, which she first sang aged twelve, and her confidence and accuracy suggest a promising talent.

Returning to conduct The Turn of the Screw in London for the first time since 1956, Sir Charles Mackerras created unstoppable musico-dramatic momentum in the pit, the sliding screens allowing him to maintain the expressive tension in the instrumental interludes, as each scene merged seamlessly into the next. This was both powerful ensemble work and impressive solo playing. Every colour and nuance was presented with precision and force; indeed, one would scarcely guess that there were only 13 players in the pit - the timpani outbursts were spine-shuddering. A curtain call presentation by current Music Director Ed Gardner to Mackerras acknowledged the latter’s achievement over 61 years, at this theatre and internationally; clearly there are no signs of a diminishing of the conductor’s dramatic insight or musical energy.

Britten’s opera is essentially an ‘intimate’, even private, work: 16 short scenes interspersed with tightly twisting instrumental variations enact a psychological drama presented by just 6 soloists accompanied by only 13 instrumentalists. Yet together, McVicar and Mackerras argued persuasively that the horrors and fears that this Jamesian tale reveals are vast and threaten us all.

Claire Seymour

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