Simon Thomas in the South West
10 December 2023
An opera staged at Bath’s Ustinov Studio is always going to be a tight fit but Benjamin Britten’s chamber piece The Turn of the Screw, with a cast of six and confined locations, is as good a choice for the small-scale treatment as any in the repertoire.
Xavier Hetherington and Arlo Murray.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
Director Isabelle Kettle and designer Charlotte Henery use less than the full depth of the stage, with a narrow strip behind serving as an inner stage, and they then place two grand pianos in the upstage area, confining the action to a shallow apron at the front. This arrangement allows no scenic setting, which leads to a fairly dead space for this most atmospheric of works.
The constant presence of the musicians doesn’t help the audience immerse itself in the world of the opera, although hiding them would probably be an insuperable challenge in a venue of this size. Other productions on this scale have somehow made the musicians less intrusive.
Sean Gleason’s subtle lighting design does some of the work of building atmosphere but there’s insufficient differentiation between the dark, eerie inside of Bly House and the sunlit exteriors of the house’s grounds. A bolder, more expressionistic approach would help create more of the inner world that is acted out in this tale of spooks and corrupted innocence.
Too much is left to the score alone to create the chill that Henry James’s tale demands. As brilliant as Britten’s music is, and this is one of his greatest scores, it isn’t quite enough to give us the creeps in the way that this opera and film adaptations of the story have done in the past.
Anna Caverliero and Oliver Michael.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
Earlier studio productions of the work have relied on a single piano accompaniment which, while losing some of Britain’s wonderful instrumentations, can shed fresh light on the score and prove more than adequate. The original scoring was for a handful of string instruments and highly characteristic percussion; here two pianos and celesta (musical director Henry Websdale and Aleksandra Myslek) plus flute (Carys Gittins) create interesting textures to bring out the beauty and strangeness of this wondrous score. One loses some of the percussiveness of the original scoring but it is a work capable of stirring and thrilling even in a reduced version.
Henry James’s novella is an example of a brilliant story badly told. As a work of Gothic imagination it is almost unsurpassed but it is very poorly written and less effective than some of the adaptations it has spawned. One of the wonders of Britten’s opera is the compact and hugely theatrical libretto by Myfanwy Piper, cast as 16 scenes plus prologue, realized by the composer as a series of intricate variations.
The singing is uniformly excellent. Emma Bell is luxury casting in the role of Mrs Grose, marking a turn in the career of a soprano renowned for Wagnerian roles and now beginning a move towards character parts. Inevitably in such a small space so big a voice is overpowering at times but it is a well-characterized performance by a singer of international repute.
Anna Cavaliero is a fragile Governess, whose suffering is perhaps too contained for much of the evening, although there is emotional voltage in the devastating final scene. The whole story can be seen as emanating from the psyche of the Governess, a post-adolescent woman struggling with her feelings who projects fears and anxieties onto the world around her. There’s little sense of that in this production and, although a different interpretation is perfectly valid, it does make for a slightly bland evening. At other performances, the Governess is played by Sarah Gilford and Mrs Grose by Sarah Pring.
Without a defining concept for the production, we are left to take the appearance of the ghosts literally although there is little effort made to make the abusive Peter Quint and his companion-in-crime Miss Jessel less corporeal. One doesn’t require anything too Grand Guignol but more indication of the ephemeral, insubstantial nature of the characters would help. Xavier Hetherington does the usual coupling of Prologue and Quint, while Elin Pritchard is Miss Jessel, both vocally excellent.
Crucial to the effectiveness of the evening is the performances of the youngsters and in Oliver Michael and Maia Greaves the production has two very capable young performers who are poignantly vulnerable. The parts are played by Arlo Murray and Catherine Mulroy at other performances.
As a Britten specialist herself, with a Covent Garden Turn of the Screw under her belt, one can understand Artistic Director Deborah Warner programming the work here. Unlike her own superlative output of the composer’s catalogue, though, this production disappoints despite its musical accomplishments.