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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
The Turn of the Screw (1954)
Chamber opera in two acts, libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Henry James
Governess (soprano) – Helen Field
Peter Quint/Prologue (tenor) – Richard Greager
Miss Jessel (soprano) – Phyllis Cannan
Mrs. Grose (mezzo) – Menai Davies
Flora (soprano) – Machiko Obata
Miles (treble) – Samuel Linay
Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart/Steuart Bedford
Recorded at the Schwetzinger Festspiele, 1990
Directed for the stage by Michael Hampe
Directed for television by Claus Viller
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 199 [108 minutes]


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The booklet informs us that this was a co-production between the Schwetzinger Festival, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Cologne Opera. It was recorded in 1990, some years before Steuart Bedford made his excellent recording for Collins Classics (soon to be reissued on Naxos). Musically the production is hard to fault, with Bedford's obvious skill and authority coming over in every phrase of Britten’s ingenious score. The pit chamber band respond enthusiastically and are well recorded.

Visually, the best aspect of the production is John Gunter’s sepia-tinted monochrome set, which creates an effective backdrop against which the Freudian ghost-thriller can unfold. I say Freudian – in fact, the rather distressing sexual undertones of the piece are played down here, and I doubt if the multi-layered subtext is teased out as tellingly as Deborah Warner’s recent Garden production. Still, I have no problem with a ‘straight’ rendition of the opera, and it does have the advantage of letting us appreciate the marvellous variety and skill of Britten at the height of his powers.

Apart from one serious piece of miscasting, all the singers acquit themselves admirably. Helen Field’s Governess displays youthful enthusiasm that quickly turns to anxiety, fear and disillusionment. She has a relatively light soprano, one which floats effortlessly in the more taxing bits (such as her ardently lyrical letter scene) yet remains beautifully focused and firm-toned. Old hand Phyllis Cannan (who sings Mrs. Grose on the Collins set) makes an effective Miss Jessel, lurking mostly behind the backlit gauze, but vocally powerful. Menai Davies’ Mrs. Grose displays understanding for the Governess’s plight, constantly letting us in on her understanding of the ‘situation’; she delivers the lines "..he had his will, morning and night" with a chillingly cold, spare tone. As Peter Quint, New Zealand-born Richard Greager is in excellent voice, and though he too is required to be little more than a sinister onlooker most of the time, his stage presence needs to be commanding, as it is here.

Of the two children, I have no problem with Samuel Linay, who acts his socks off in what is a gift role for a budding opera star. He has obviously been well coached in the subtleties of the part, and clearly enjoys his big moments, such as his famous climactic shout of "Peter Quint, you Devil!" as he expires in the arms of the Governess. My big concern, at least visually, is the casting of his sibling, Flora. She is supposed to be around twelve or thirteen years old, but is here played by an obviously mature adult, Machiko Obata. Whilst this is often done on disc (as with the Bedford set, where Eileen Hulse easily gets away with it) it is a serious distraction on stage. Or should I say on film, because it may have been no problem at a distance in the theatre, but with constant close-up is very jarring. She towers above Miles, and no amount of loose Victorian clothing and make-up can hide the fact that she is an adult, looking at least as old as the Governess. Vocally she is also more powerful than Helen Field, and makes very little attempt to lighten the voice into something more suitable. She is obviously an excellent artist, but how on earth she was given this part remains a mystery.

While we’re on the subject of close-ups, the penchant for zooming in for opera filming needles me as much as some other reviewers. It does this production no favours. Apart from reminding us constantly of Flora’s miscasting, it shows us the obvious miming of the two ghosts, whose voices have been doctored in places to have ‘ghostly’ reverberation. It also gives an unfortunate (and probably unintended) glimpse of Miles’s awful mock piano playing (Act 2, scene 6), as he sways around theatrically at the keyboard, his hands completely at odds with the virtuoso music we’re hearing. Again, a nice try that I’m sure would have been effective in the theatre.

These quibbles should not put you off investigating this release. The sound and film quality is good, and in Bedford’s very capable hands, the musical rewards are considerable. It all comes on one disc, which is just as well, as the one touted ‘extra’ is simply a short, narrated introduction to the opera, worthwhile but no more than the booklet gives. Definitely worth buying for singing, playing and intelligent production values, as long as the caveats are noted.

Tony Haywood

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