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Image courtesy of Opera Holland Park
06 Jul 2014

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above image courtesy of Opera Holland Park


Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications’. So wrote Henry James in the Preface to his short story, The Turn of the Screw.

James’s novella is characterised by the author’s characteristic literary evasion: the ‘gaps’ in the narrative, which frustrate and provoke the reader, are an invitation to musical intimation and allusion — and the suggestiveness of Britten’s score perfectly complements, even enhances, the author’s tantalising elusiveness. By contrast, Annilese Miskimmon’s new production for Opera Holland Park — the first Britten opera to be performed at OHP — makes the ‘evil’ explicit and specific, and, paradoxically, adds further conjectures and inferences.

One might think that the ruined walls of Holland House which form the backdrop for the stage would offer copious opportunities to evoke the shadowy recesses of James’ country mansion, Bly — a repository of psychological and psychic instability. However, Miskimmon and her designer Leslie Travers choose to construct a school-room to house the entire action of the opera, picking up on James’s insinuations that Miles’ undisclosed ‘crime’ — which sees him expelled from school and which confirms that he is ‘bad’ — is that he has contaminated or corrupted his school fellows, presumably by divulging the sexual knowledge he has been taught be Quint. During Act 1, Miles draws a rectangle in one corner of the blackboard; in Act 2 this becomes the door through which Quint enters. In this way, Miskimmon takes an inference and escalates it into the production’s central rationale.

So, we enter a classroom — presumably Bly has been converted into a boys’ preparatory school in the years following the tragedy depicted in the opera — spanned by an elongated blackboard along one angled wall and a piano nestled at the other end, with school-boys’ desks and a series of black panels suggesting a library in between. In Act 2 the panels swivel and form slanting screens casting shadows from which Peter Quint and Miss Jessel can surreptitiously emerge and fade.

The Prologue is sung by a laboratory-coat attired teacher (Robin Tritschler). As Tritschler ends eloquent, self-composed introduction to the ‘curious story’ which we will witness, a class of schoolboys in shorts and caps scamper to their desks. During the score’s instrumental interludes — which mark the passing of time and convey the ‘gaps’ in the novella — the teacher and his young charges will re-appear, sometimes serving a practical purpose as stage hands, at other times enforcing Miskimmon’s central idea about the ubiquitous threat to ‘innocence’. As they are shepherded through the school rooms, one boy lingers, engaging in an ambiguous and sinister gaze with his schoolmaster — we are encouraged to ask the Jamesian question, ‘who has corrupted whom and what is the nature of that corruption?’

In the original production, Peter Pears took the role of both the Narrator and Peter Quint; by assigning two roles to one singer, Britten increased James’s ambiguity, but here a different singer is cast as Peter Quint, and Miskimmon’s parallels between Bly past and present are more overt. Similarly, Britten’s instrumental variations on the ‘screw theme’ which is presented at the end of the Prologue create accumulating intensity through ever-changing permutations and elaboration. But here — while conductor Steuart Bedford’s appreciation of the musico-dramatic structure is deeply insightful and the rich array of affecting instrumental timbres that he coaxes from players from the City of London Sinfonia astonishingly detailed — the same visual image is repeated as the musical variations progress, growing in emphasis with each repetition.

Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is imaginative at times: in the opening scene, the black wall panels are made translucent and through them we see the Governess travelling to Bly, cleverly creating a sense of physical distance and of her isolation. Similarly, the shapeless spaces beyond the panels form dark recesses in which hints of Quint’s menacing form can be glimpsed. But, although performances start at 8pm, presumably to take advantage of the fall from twilight into night, there was little sense of nocturnal enchantment. In Scene 8 ‘Night’, when Quint makes his seductive appeal to Miles, a cobalt glow infused the set but it did not match the unearthly beauty and enigmatic enticements of Britten’s instrumental colours, and Quint’s very obvious position atop the panels was too blatant, lacking mystery.

The singular set posed other problems, mostly relating to the fact that there was no opportunity to juxtapose the suffocating interiors which are the Governess’s domain at Bly with the excitement and expanse of the world beyond the mansion’s walls into which Quint lures Miles. So, when the Governess takes young Flora down to the lake which the former governess, Miss Jessel, spectrally inhabits, the schoolmaster’s desk must do service for the ghostly waters while Flora clutches her doll standing upon a shore formed by a line of chairs; when she identifies the waters as the ‘Dead Sea’, she is naming not the dark depths across which she, we guess, communes with Miss Jessel, but rather identifying a geographical location on a map pulled down by the schoolmaster to cover the blackboard. (It’s interesting to recall that originally Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper planned to name the opera, ‘The Tower and the Lake’ — a title latent with Freudian overtones).

There are some neat directorial touches. Miss Jessel is first seen writhing on the master’s desk, and it is upon this desk that Miles dies. Tritschler’s red hair becomes a powerful visual symbol, as both Miles and Flora share his auburn colouring, perhaps suggesting shared lineage, and recalling James’s scandalous, red-headed Quint.

But, overall I lamented that the juxtaposition between repression and freedom was neglected in favour of a narrative of child abuse. For, Quint may be dangerous but he also represents a liberating freedom in the face of the Governess’s stifling over-protectiveness — the latter is just as potent a threat to childhood innocence. In the course of the opera Quint and Governess battle for the right to act as surrogate parent to the children, who have been neglected by their guardian and are inadequately served by the unsophisticated, rather limited Mrs Grose, but Miskimmon offers little sense of the intensity or perilousness of their struggle — although the intended recipient of Miles’ final cry, ‘Peter Quint, you devil!’ is intentionally equivocal. Certainly we are led to deduce that public school is ‘horrid’; but in James and Britten, Miles senses that Governess has other reasons for keeping him at home: ‘Well, I think also, you know, of this queer business of ours … the way you bring me up. And all the rest!’

Miles wants to see more of ‘life’, and we need to see, or at least sense, the opposition of the indoors and out, for it is when Miles roams in the garden at Bly, away from the Governess’s claustrophobic embrace, that he submits to Quint’s enchantment and indulges his own desire for ‘adventure’. And, just as Miskimmon’s Peter Quint is a flesh-and-blood villain, there is little sense also of the Governess’s decline from the strong, confident young professional arriving at Bly to a fragile girl wracked by self-doubt, tormented by her sense of her own culpability.

Thus, while Ellie Laugharne sang with energy and passion, revealing a full, rich soprano, she was unable to convincingly portray the Governess’s growing instability as her fears escalate and inhibit her judgement. There were occasional signs of her emotional deficiencies and weaknesses — a physical stiffening in the warm, honest embrace of Diana Montague’s Mrs Grose, for example. But, her passionate outburst of grief at the close — ‘Ah, Ah don’t leave me now! Ah! Miles! … What have we done between us?’ — was directed away from the child weakening on the desk behind her, and thus did not fully reinforce her awareness of her shared guilt.

The two children were particularly striking — thrillingly engaging both musically and dramatically. Dominic Lynch’s Miles was a wonderful portrait of adolescent precocity and powerful emotional manipulation. His pure soprano was astonishingly penetrating and strong; in his night-time rendezvous with Quint, Lynch’s focused, confident responses to Quint’s alluring cries were a potent sign of his receptiveness to promises of freedom, establishing the intensity of the boy’s communion with Quint. Lynch’s ‘Malo Song’ — still and calm, accompanied by a lovely cor anglais solo — was a wonderful moment of eerie, bewitching quietude. Rosie Lomas was chilling as Flora, incredibly youthful in demeanour, convincingly vicious in her childhood ‘games’ with her younger sibling, her soprano crystalline yet sympathetic.

Diana Montague (replacing Anne Mason who was originally cast in the role but who is now indisposed for the run) was absolutely superb as Mrs Grose; the expanse and depth of her mezzo was utterly redolent of the sweeping maternal embrace which Mrs Grose offers the children, modulated by notes of unease and concern.

As Peter Quint, Brendan Gunnell sang with poised and sure tone, and if the seductive runs of his nocturnal enticement scene lacked a little ‘other-worldliness’ they were smoothly and clearly articulated. Gunnell’s Act 2 Colloquy with Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel was fervidly theatrical; Pritchard brought copious physical and vocal presence to the rather weakly characterised role.

In many ways, this Colloquy — which sets W.B.Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’ — is the linchpin of the opera, yet once again I felt that Miskimmon didn’t find quite the right dramatic note. The ghosts chillingly proclaim that the ‘Ceremony of innocence is drowned’; that is, Yeats and Britten assert, the ceremony of innocence, its rituals, must be ‘drowned’ in order to liberate the individual so that the child can progress to adulthood — though Yeats’ image of apocalyptic agony, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’, certainly intimates that breaking conventions may have good or bad results. But, this ambiguity is removed by ubiquitous presence of the science master and his prepubescent charges which shifts the focus onto destruction of innocence itself — and, in so doing, the ‘meaning’ of opera is relocated, or at least some of the shades of ambiguity removed.

Miskimmon takes a focused line and she sticks to it. There are some clever and imaginative touches and she is well served by her cast. But, this Screw would benefit from being more sensitive to the Jamesian silences and to the score’s enigmas and equivocations.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

The Governess, Ellie Laugharne; Peter Quint, Brenden Gunnell; Mrs Grose, Diana Montague; Miss Jessel, Elin Pritchard; The Prologue, Robin Tritschler; Miles, Dominic Lynch; Flora, Rosie Lomas; Director, Annilese Miskimmon; Conductor, Steuart Bedford; Designer, Leslie Travers; Lighting Designer, Mark Jonathan. Opera Holland Park, Tuesday, 1st July 2014.

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