Near-Ideal Turn of the Screw from Glyndebourne

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

By now there is no argument: Benjamin Britten’s 1954 The Turn of the Screw is a masterpiece on the level of Henry James’ 1898 novella of the same name. A “ghost story” of an odd sort—James preferred, as he put it, “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy” to “slashers”—the novella turns on its ambiguity and its creepiness. Are the ghosts real? Or is the Governess insane, repressed, paranoid, and the eventual cause of Miles’ death by heart failure? In the opera, of course, the “ghosts” sing, so we hear their reality, but Britten (and librettist Myfanwy Piper) sticks very close to James insofar as the puzzle is concerned. Do the children see and hear the ghosts? We simply don’t know—and of course, that’s what James and Britten wanted.

My thoughts about this Glyndebourne production probably will be in the minority, but I feel that Paul Brown’s sets remove a very important element from the work. Working on a stage made up of a series of moving circles is a marvelous idea, with furniture gliding in and out seemingly by itself, and Jonathan Kent’s updating the action approximately to the time the opera was composed is not in itself harmful: the pre-Elvis ‘50s were, after all, almost as full of repression as James’ Victorian England. But the set is essentially made up of a huge glass window that turns and tips to change the scenes, and while at times, particularly aided by Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting, this lends a note of disorienting menace to the proceedings, it negates one of the major things about the story: the claustrophobia.

Big Victorian houses are of course ideal for that sort of feeling, but it could have been modernized as well: here, however, we get too much air, too much—to point out the obvious—transparency. As I said, a minority opinion, I suspect, and it doesn’t ruin the story. But it did stop me from getting chills and feeling threatened, as I have in the past while watching this opera. It’s all a bit too attractive, and the tilting glass draws attention away from the story—it becomes an event unto itself. But enough about that, especially since the singing is probably the finest on any DVD version of the work.

Miah Persson, whom I know mostly as a Mozart singer, is flawless: fresh-faced but buttoned up, not obviously unhinged but so tightly wound and optimistic (at first) that her discomfort and obsessive behavior makes us uncomfortable soon enough. And her diction, pitch, and sense of line are impeccable. Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose is no old fool; she’s alert, caring, and in excellent voice and makes the housekeeper a major character. Toby Spence is a baby-faced Quint (and Prologue) and all the weirder for his innocent look: he wheedles, he whispers, he insinuates, he emphasizes just the right words and always within Britten’s dynamic instructions. His melismatic singing is clean and effortless—bel canto at the service of the text. Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, made up to look like one of those girls in Japanese horror films whose hair is always wet, sings gloriously but lacks spontaneity—her movements are too rehearsed and she never frightens.

The marvelous children are Joanna Songi as Flora, here a somewhat nasty, big-toned almost-teenager (and just a bit too mature), and Thomas Parfitt as Miles. Parfitt’s voice is very small but always audible; and he has every nuance of the role down pat—you can’t tell if he’s an angel or a devil. “Malo, malo” is heavenly and hideous at once. And when he refers to the Governess as “My dear,” there is something so perverse about it that it’s sickening. When they sing “Tom, Tom the Piper’s son” Jonathan Kent has Miles riding on top of Flora and whipping her like a horse—innocent? Unnerving. And Miles’ final moment is ideally staged—he yells “Peter Quint” looking in one direction and “You devil!” in another. Are his last two words directed at the Governess? James never tells and Kent keeps us puzzled.

Jakub Hrusa leads the London Philharmonic in an instinctual, perversely accented, gut-wrenching reading, and the 15-or-so instrumentalists are superb. The drama builds and the quiet scene of Flora’s departure perfectly sets the stage for the horror that follows. Both picture and sound are excellent. There are bonus features in which director and conductor discuss the creation of the production, with backstage and rehearsal footage. The true competition on DVD is the film led by Richard Hickox (Opus Arte), but this new one, musically close to perfection, will please most fans of the opera and win over many others.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Hickox (Opus Arte); This one

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