Atmosphere and Tension in Glyndebourne Touring’s Turn of the Screw

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, The Turn of the Screw:  Soloists, Glyndebourne Touring Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Leo McFall (conductor),  Marlowe Theatre,  Canterbury, 7.11.2014 (CS)

Prologue/Peter Quint: Anthony Gregory
Governess,: Natalya Romaniw
Flora:  Louise Moseley
Miles: Thomas Delgado-Little
Mrs Grose: Anne Mason
Miss Jessel: Miranda Keys


Director,:Jonathan Kent
Revival Director: Francesca Gilpin
Designer: Paul Brown
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Revival Lighting: David Manion


Jonathan Kent’s 2006 Glyndebourne production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (here superbly staged by revival director Francesca Gilpin) set in the 1950s when the opera was composed, is beautifully designed and visually redolent.  The ‘frame’ of Henry James’s novella – in which ‘Douglas’ reveals to his fellow guests gathered in the library of a country house, that he has inherited a manuscript which reveals (but does not ‘tell’, or explain) a chilling, haunting event from the past – is retained through the use of cinematic devices.

That is, during the Prologue, as the Narrator tidies away children’s toys and memorabilia in an imposing trunk, literally putting away the past, a shaky home video of children running free in a country park (Glyndebourne?) plays on the backdrop.  This screen is also used effectively during the first scene, when the Governess travels to Bly to take up her position of responsibility for two new young charges, the images of the countryside flashing by adding the distance of place to the distance of time.

Paul Brown’s designs are wonderfully suggestive and evocative.  A hinged and layered leaded window frame turns, twists, and is raised aloft, instantly creating a range of locations – conservatory, greenhouse, children’s nursery, church and lake.  Mark Henderson’s lighting adds provocatively to the impact; flashes of light glint bewitchingly through the shadows cast by the gnarled branches which form a hanging Gothic sculpture, and the deep colours of the stain glass window which leans moralistically over the Act 2 church service cast an imposing glow.  As the window-frame transmutes, the lighting turns walls to glass to mirrors to water.  A striking moment occurs in Act 1 when we move from inside the house to the grounds of Bly: the window-frame lowers menacingly, as the former governess Miss Jessel raises her arms in defence, before she is forced beneath the ‘lake’ beside which she will subsequently appear as a ghostly apparition; the rushes which slide into place like scythes recall the reed beds of Snape Maltings, while Flora’s doll’s house becomes a miniature Bly, viewed in the distance from across the eerie waters.

Chairs, beds and desks slide slickly on a double revolve, magically effecting transformations of place.  This mechanism is employed to striking effect in the Act 2 Colloquy when, languishing on beds on either side of the stage, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint slither menacingly forward.  When Quint urges Miles to steal the letter that the Governess has written to the children’s guardian, a writing desk slips into the spotlight – a disturbing representation of the beguiling power of evil and the malleability of youthful innocence.

The ambiguous intimations of the design perfectly embody the deliberate elusiveness of James’s tale.  Do the ghosts exist or are they just the figment of the inexperienced governess’s overactive imagination and unfulfilled passions?  Who corrupts whom: is the governess the oppressor of the children’s freedom and imagination, stifling them with her inappropriate ‘love’, or is she the victim, destabilised by an evil haunter who fears that she will ‘save’ the child he has corrupted and whose soul he has entranced?

Given that the ghosts had to sing, Britten took a practical decision and determined that they were ‘real’ – although his score, and Myfanwy Piper’s libretto retain plenty of ambiguous implications; but, the composer perhaps did not imagine that the ghosts would be quite as unarguably ‘present’ as they are in this production.  Peter Quint may not be visible to the audience when the Governess first espies him in the ‘Tower’ scene, by thereon he is a forceful physical and tangible presence, and the ghastly nature of his intent and his influence on Miles is never in doubt.  Miss Jessel too has an undeniable substantiality; she is no wraith, but rather a definite, manifest figure of threatening demeanour and defiance.  The night-time seduction scene – set in the children’s bathroom – is disturbingly unambiguous; it is shocking to see Quint pluck Miles from his bath, as the unseeing Flora washes hair in the basin.

But, if the maleficent ghosts display irrefutably wicked intent, then so too is the Governess an over-wrought, impressionable figure whose impassioned, at times hysterical, protective embrace of the children seems no less dangerous.  In a neat gesture, she grabs Miles to her, wrapping him in her cloak, ‘suffocating’ the boy whom she seeks to protect; an image which we recall at the close of the opera when she cradles the dying child.  Oddly, then, this production is both tantalisingly suggestive and excessively emphatic.  The one thing that does not seem in doubt is the children’s innocence.

It is also excellently sung, with Natalya Romaniw and Anne Mason making a formidably strong pair as the Governess and Mrs Grose respectively.  Romaniw’s soprano is plush and rich across a wide range, and she has an authoritative dramatic presence; her tone is vibrant and exciting, her diction excellent.  As a result, this was an assertive Governess, confident in her convictions, assured in her moral righteousness.  Mason brought strong emotional commitment to the role of the housekeeper; this was a well-considered presentation of the role, her strong mezzo expressive of her fierce, unqualified and uncomplicated love for the children.

As the Narrator, Anthony Gregory’s bright, focused tenor was a perfect fit; as Quint, his tone was appealing but perhaps a little too assertive – I’d have liked a little more ethereality, and a more languid tempo, for his nocturnal, meslismatic calls of enticement at the end of Act 1.  Gregory was, however, a strikingly ominous figure of malevolence.  Similarly, the large, resonant soprano of Miranda Keys movingly expressed the agonies – in life as in death – of Miss Jessel; Keys’s expansive tone and committed interpretation garnered more sympathy for the abused, abandoned, betrayed former governess than is often the case.

The ‘innocence’ of the children was beautifully portrayed by Louise Moseley (Flora) and Thomas Delgado-Little (Miles), although they struggled to project when they were placed to the rear of the stage.  Moseley was a convincing Flora – for once the role was taken by a young singer just the right age for the part – and she showed considerable vocal assurance and dramatic self-composure.  Delgado-Little – a very young Miles – was the embodiment of angelic purity, both visually and vocally; his tone is pure and wholesome, and Miles’s dubious remark, ‘I’m bad, aren’t I’, at the conclusion to Act 1 lacked any of its usual transgressive inferences.  Miles’s final cry, ‘Peter Quint – you devil!’, was  flung at the audience, before the child buried himself in his governess’s enfolding embrace; were we to blame for his tragic torment?  I found the nursery scene, with its ambivalent rendition of ‘Tom Tom Piper’s son’, rather tame – one need not call for the incestuous psychodrama of Jonathan Miller’s 1979 ENO production, but Miles’s horseback play and antics did seem rather flimsy and harmless here.

In the past, I have found the Marlowe Theatre acoustic unhelpful for orchestra clarity and projection – the theatre is, after all, designed primarily for spoken drama – but on this occasion the chamber orchestra in the pit shone with lucidity.  Conductor Leo McFall demonstrated an impressive appreciation of the dramatic form underpinning the musical narrative, the variations of the ‘screw theme’ which form a series of instrumental interludes unveiling the narrative enthrallingly.

Claire Seymour

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