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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of the Screw (1954)
A Chamber Opera in Two Acts with Prologue
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the novel by Henry James
Governess: Helen Field, soprano
Mrs. Grose: Menai Davies, mezzo-soprano
Peter Quint/Prologue: Richard Greager, tenor
Miss Jessel: Phyllis Cannan, mezzo-soprano
Flora: Machiko Obata, soprano
Miles: Samuel Linay, treble
Stage direction: Michael Hampe
Set design: John Gunter
Directed for Video and Television: Claus Viller
The Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
A joint production of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Cologne Opera for the 1990 Schwetzinger Festspiele.
Special features include a six-minute introduction to the opera and an eight-minute promotional trailer. Subtitled in English, French and Spanish.
ARTHAUS DVD 100 199 [108:00]

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The composer and his music

Widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten holds a place of special significance in British musical life in that he, through the success of his 1945 opera Peter Grimes single-handedly restored English opera to the world stage. In his several subsequent works for the theater, Britten elevated the art of operatic expression to a level unseen since Verdi and Puccini and in so doing proved himself to be the most able exponent of English vocal music since Henry Purcell. His motto: "To be useful and for the present," was fulfilled in his dramatic works by a number of innovations, most appreciably through his work with The English Opera Group, founded by himself, Peter Pears, John and Myfanwy Piper and others, to resuscitate opera performances in England after the war years. His experience working with the Crown Film Unit, for whom he wrote numerous scores before the war, was to pay off in spades, as it provided him with the necessary training ground to master the use of minimal orchestral forces to maximum effect. In The Turn of the Screw he turns the modest forces of six singers and fifteen instruments in to high drama of nearly Wagnerian impact.

The story

Set in a country manor house in nineteenth century England, the Governess, whose name, oddly, we never know, agrees to take charge of two children, left in the temporary care of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose after the mysterious deaths of Quint, the butler and Miss Jessel, the former governess. She is bothered by doubts, and has particular reservations after accepting the condition that she is under no circumstances to contact the children’s guardian for assistance. Upon her arrival, her warm reception by the children and Mrs. Grose allay her fears for the moment. One night in the garden, she encounters a strange man on the tower; a man whom she later learns is the ghost of the dead Quint. Mrs. Grose is horrified, wondering if there will be no end to Quint’s evil meddling.

Later, on a walk by the lake, Flora, the elder child encounters the spirit of Miss Jessel. After interrupting a late night encounter between the children and the two ghosts, the governess realizes that the children are being haunted and vows to leave immediately. Upon second thought, however, she concludes that she cannot leave the children alone and unprotected, and writes a letter to her employer, begging for help. The ghost of Quint, however, entices young Miles to steal the letter. Mrs. Grose sets off for London with Flora to escape the influence of the phantom Miss Jessel, and the governess remains behind to attempt to gain Miles’ confidence so that she can rescue him from Quint. Quint appears again, however, and after a tremendous struggle of will, Miles banishes the ghost by speaking his name aloud, and then collapses in death. The governess is left to mourn her ultimate failure.

The Psychodrama

An overriding theme in much of Britten’s stage output is the struggle of the outcast to be accepted by society. This was an issue near to his own psyche, as he himself struggled to overcome the stigma which his open homosexuality placed upon him in early twentieth century England. In addition, at least one prominent biographer has revealed Britten’s tendency towards pedophilia (a tendency for which there is no evidence that he ever acted upon) is at play in this opera, given the darker undertones of the type of hold that the adult Peter Quint has over the adolescent Miles. Further, Britten’s characters display the tendencies that Freud described in his Studies on Hysteria, by which the fears of the subconscious mind are brought to the fore uncontrollably, and therefore become reality. By the end of the opera, the zeal with which the governess attempts to protect the children becomes an obsession, one that ends in disaster with the girl child in delirium and the boy child dead.

The Production

John Gunter’s stark, gray set designs go miles to aid Michael Hampe’s very convincing visual concept of the opera. Little is done in the way of special effects and lighting to make Miss Jessel and Quint appear ghostlike. Instead, they are often kept at a distance from the "living" characters, either by placing them far upstage or high above the other action. Lighting effects are minimal, and thus, when something special does occur, it is all the more dramatic and attention grabbing. Costumes are simple and of the period, and properties are kept to a minimum so as to allow the observer to concentrate more on the dialogue and the facial and physical reactions of the characters, masterfully choreographed by Hampe, and splendidly executed by the cast. If there is a visual distraction at all in this otherwise exquisite production, it is the prissy conducting style of Steuart Bedford, whom we see at every scene-change variation in the pit. His pinky-up, overly dainty baton technique quickly becomes an annoyance, and in truth is the only flaw in this performance that otherwise borders perfection.

The Singing and the Orchestra

With the exception of the aforementioned affected stick technique of the conductor, this is an assembly of musicians, vocal and otherwise, that is without peer. Helen Field is magnificent in her lyric, effortless singing, and she excels as an actress. Her performance is consistently emotional and dramatic without ever lapsing into sloppy mugging or melodrama. Menai Davies is a perfect foil for Field as Mrs. Grose. She plays the character exactly as she should be: somewhat provincial in her outlook, yet deeply compassionate and concerned for the welfare of all in her charge. Richard Greager, as the Prologue and Quint is menacing as the spectral predator. His singing has the dramatic depth of the late Peter Pears without the elder’s quirky timbre. He is perfectly partnered by Phyllis Cannan, whose rich dramatic mezzo, a saber wrapped in velvet, is terrifying with her Vampira-esque mane of hair and funereal black dress. The children (although Flora is played by an adult soprano) are equally impressive. Machiko Obata, who was born and first studied in Japan has a clear light voice and is adept at shifting from playful child to terrified victim. Most impressive is her flawless, impeccable English diction. Samuel Linay proves himself to be quite the actor and musician in this very taxing role. He is thoroughly convincing as the innocent, who at times is victim, at times collaborator and ultimately, hero.

To summarize:

This is a striking production, with magnificent performances by all concerned. Despite my one complaint about Maestro Bedford, he is thoroughly familiar with this score and is in lockstep with Britten’s creative imagination. His orchestra plays without flaw. The production values are of the first order. Although subtitles are available, English-speaking audiences will have no need for them, as everyone in the cast is possessed of the very clearest enunciation and diction. Every single word is understandable upon first hearing, making this a performance that ranks miles above many of its kind. No lover of opera will want to be without this, an utterly winsome rendition of the work of a master composer at the top of his game.

Kevin Sutton

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