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
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.
product_title=The Turn of th1e Screw, Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id=Above: Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint, Sarah Tynan as The Governess and Tim Gasiorek as Miles
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton