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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of the Screw

Prologue [3.06]
Scene 1 – The Journey [3.26]
Scene 2 – The Welcome [4.23]
Scene 3 – The Letter [4.00]
Scene 4 – The Tower [5.56]
Scene 5 – The Window [9.52]
Scene 6 – The Lesson [4.49]
Scene 7 – The Lake [6.58]
Scene 8 – At Night [11.36]
Scene 1 – Colloquy and Soliloquy [8.52]
Scene 2 – The Bells [8.21]
Scene 3 – Miss Jessel [7.11]
Scene 4 – The Bedroom [6.59]
Scene 5 – Quint [2.06]
Scene 6 – The Piano [4.34]
Scene 7 – Flora [5.05]
Scene 8 – Miles [12.13]
End credits [1.04]
Synopsis [6.18]
Cast gallery
Mark Padmore (Quint), Lisa Milne (The Governess), Catrin Wyn Davies (Miss Jessel), Diana Montague (Mrs Grose), Nicholas Kirby Johnson (Miles), Caroline Wise (Flora)
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox


This recent production of Britten’s terrifying masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, a BBC Wales Production released by Opus Arte, has received many excellent reviews. Whilst I wholeheartedly admire the musical aspect, I have some misgivings about the dramatic production of this work.

First of all, I must make clear that the singing is flawless, and the orchestral accompaniment is sympathetic and accomplished – Hickox directs an aptly sinister City of London Sinfonia with great aplomb. The acting, too, is of the highest standard, especially when one considers that theses are actually singers, not trained actors. On the whole, then, this is an excellent performance from all involved and cannot be faulted from a musical perspective.

To the perceived deficiencies, then ... Although a slight sense of unease hangs over the proceedings and the setting of the isolated house with its extensive woods, and dismal, swampy lake is aptly mysterious, I do not feel that this production conveys the air of menace that it both could and, perhaps, should. After the Governess’s initial apprehensions, for example, all is sweetness and light until the first appearance of Quint, and the atmosphere of foreboding that should overshadow the entire opera is largely absent, particularly in the opening scenes.

This lack of a ghostly quality looming over the whole work is exacerbated by the reality of the phantoms. Were one unfamiliar with the work, one would not in a million years guess that Quint or Miss Jessel were ghosts before their supernatural status was revealed. Far from being insubstantial, ethereal spirits, the earthiness of these creatures are taken to almost ridiculous extremes – when Quint discovers the Governess’s letter, he races up to Miles’ bedroom, shakes Miles violently awake, drags him out of bed and hurls him towards the door. But if he is thus able to physically manipulate the real world, why doesn’t he take the letter himself, we wonder? Clearly it is only on account of the fact that he is a ghost and is therefore unable to touch and hold matter that he gets Miles to retrieve the letter in the story. Similarly, the interaction between Miss Jessel and the Governess is far too physical. This is no ghost scene, no spectral encounter. Rather, there is absolutely no distinction between the dead and living characters whatsoever, as a sweaty, corporeal Miss Jessel gropes unappealingly and unnecessarily at the Governess, completely devoid of any hint of other-worldliness.

If the ghosts fail to strike fear and terror into us because they come across as psychotic humans rather than spirits, neither are the children "freaky" enough. Miles and Flora are haunted children who have been dragged into a dark and eerie realm, corrupted and perverted. I feel they should somehow be more disturbed and unnerving, and less "ordinary".

I do like the fact that this is a very introspective rendition of an introspective work, although I am not convinced about the way that the neurotic doubts of the Governess are internalised. Clearly on the stage these innermost thoughts would be sung aloud but here with the benefit of film, the director has chosen to separate the singing from the actor and so the words are heard only to the accompaniment of looks of concern while lips remain sealed. This is a good, and effective trick, yet I am uncomfortable with the repercussions this has for the remainder of the singing. In an opera we can suspend belief while characters bawl at each other across the stage, but on film it comes across as curious to have the ability to withhold some of the physical singing from the audience yet then only a little later have the characters effectively bawling at each other across the screen – it calls into question the realism of the production and affects that so delicate balance of belief suspense.

On the whole, I did not feel that this production was quite chilling or dark enough, mostly because the ghosts were so un-wraith-like. The atmosphere of the opera is oppressive but not quite sinister enough, and although beautifully filmed, the whole setting is extremely bland and samey, almost claustrophobically so. Singing, acting and production are of the highest standard, and it is merely personal taste and the desire for a darker, more disquieting and supernatural version that has me hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend this.

Em Marshall

see also review by Colin Clarke

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