Britten’s major operas revolve around a series of key themes and The Turn of the Screw is the most harrowing account of one of them – the corruption of innocence. Based on a Henry James novella, the story is of a governess hired to look after two children, Miles and Flora, who live at Bly, an isolated country house. The governess begins to suspect that the children have come under the corrupting influence of two former servants. Both are dead but their continuing presence at Bly becomes apparent and the climax of the opera is a struggle between the governess and the ghosts for the souls of the children.
The Turn of the Screw is one of Britten’s chamber operas. It is scored for seven singers and a small orchestra of thirteen players. This economy of scale makes it an ideal choice for Holland Park and the production team of Miskimmon and Travers do a tremendous job both of conjuring up a convincing setting for the action and of delivering the drama in a way that carries the audience through from suspicion and unease in the first scenes to full blown horror at the climax of act 2. One of the strengths of the opera is that it is never quite explicit about what has been the nature of the relationships between the servants and the children and this production stylishly underlines the sense of unease and dread that builds relentlessly through the opera.
The singing is universally excellent. Elle Laugharne sings the role of the governess – she is never named – with beauty of tone and conveys a growing sense of dread and despair with total conviction. Gunnell and Pritchard sing well and act even better – Gunnell’s Quint, cigarette in mouth like a sleazy prep school master, is compelling and Pritchard’s Miss Jessell has a zombie- like quality – one almost waits for a limb to drop off! Sometimes the casting of the children is the weak link in this work – in this version Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas, as Flora and Miles, sing splendidly and convey the difficult combination of fracturing innocence and corrupt complicity with absolute assurance.
The action is set in a school classroom and the intermissions between scenes are sometimes punctuated by a group of small boys in blazers and caps. This all serves to heighten the sense that we are in a world where adults exploit children – a pre-occupation for Britten and all too relevant in our world today. The row of cupboards at the back of the classroom sometimes seems solid but can be transformed by clever lighting effects into windows through which Quint and Miss Jessell first appear. Even the blackboard eventually provides another way for the ghosts to invade the children’s world.
Holland Park Opera have done a brilliant job by remaining true to Britten’s extraordinary vision. He conjures up a world of menace and uncertainty through a musical structure that is developed systematically over two hours but without us ever feeling that the drama is being lessened to fit in with a “too clever” musical idea. There are highpoints – like the ‘Lavender Blue’ scene as Britten brilliantly weaves a well known children’s song into the score – but it’s the piece as a whole that is so wonderful. The truly shocking ending leaves the audience both stunned and chastened.