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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of the Screw (1955) [108.00]
Samuel Linay (treble) - Miles; Helen Field (soprano) - Governess; Richard Greager (tenor) - Quint, Prologue; Phyllis Cannan (soprano) - Miss Jessel; Menai Davies (mezzo) - Mrs Grose; Machiko Obata (soprano) - Flora
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
rec. Schwetzingen Festival, 1990
Extra: introduction to the opera [5.00]
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 303 [113.00] 

Britten’s last chamber opera The Turn of the Screw began its career in Venice, so it is not particularly remarkable that this DVD of the opera should come from Germany. The work has always had a strong dramatic appeal - more so than Britten’s later Henry James opera Owen Wingrave (also with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper). His use of a small ensemble of players, with the score bound together with a returning twelve-tone row - although the score itself is not dodecaphonic - matches the small scale of the James novella to perfection. The work has also had an enduring appeal, not only because the subject-matter remains unfortunately topical to this day, but also because the story lends itself to a wide variety of psychological interpretations.
 
To judge from the BBC television productions that Britten conducted or supervised during his lifetime - Peter Grimes,Owen Wingrave and Billy Budd, all now thankfully restored to circulation on DVD - he preferred his operas to be staged in a realistic style. He would have been delighted with this production, mounted originally by the Royal Opera Covent Garden but seen here in a transfer to the Schwetzingen Festival. John Gunter’s sets are minimal, with a French window, gravestones in the churchyard, the bare necessities of furniture. They are backed with photographic projections of a lake, road, and so on which gives a real sense of atmosphere and place - a realism which makes the eruptions of the supernatural into the ‘normal’ world all the more effective.
 
Britten does not help matters, however, by the extreme concision of some of the scenes. During the orchestral interludes which separate one from the next, the camera continually cuts away to the orchestra pit where we see Steuart Bedford encouraging his players as well as close-ups of the individual instrumentalists in action. This produces a rather bitty effect, and continually interrupts the sense of dramatic continuity and theatrical illusion. However the cameras are always in the right place when we are viewing the action, and we miss nothing of the intense acting of the cast, all of whom are well inside their roles.
 
Helen Field as the Governess gives a superb depiction of her descent into monomania, and her growing conviction that the children have been the subject of what nowadays we would call child abuse. The frightening nature of her portrayal of her fears of ghostly possession - when those around her can see nothing - is brilliantly handled. However - and it is a real drawback - it is often very difficult to hear exactly what she is singing about. Robert Tear has told us of an incident when Britten tackled him in a real rage because he felt that the singer was giving precedence to the beauty of his tone projection at the expense of dramatic projection. Here one notices that Field is similarly concentrating on making a beautiful sound, even when this involves her in the distortion of vowel sounds and the swallowing of consonants. Turning on the English subtitles does not help, because annoyingly these are surprisingly inaccurate with continual alterations of the text as sung in the vocal score. There are also one or two clearly deliberate amendments made to fit the production, which the subtitles blithely ignore.
 
Apart from the lead singer in the role of the Governess, the other major role in this opera will always present a real problem of casting. The boy treble who takes the part of Miles not only has to project volume to match the rest of the cast, but also has to act the part of a boy who has become preternaturally mature ahead of his age. It must be said that Samuel Linay fulfils both these requirements admirably. He is superbly knowing and sinister in the closing scenes and his diction is better than that of the adults in the cast too. As his sister Machiko Obato looks too old to be credible as a girl who is still playing with dolls. She is nearly as tall as the adults who surround her but this role too presents difficulties if it is cast with a girl soprano, and she blends well into the musical ensemble. Phyllis Cannan is a strong Mrs Grose, whose growing relationship with the troubled Governess is carefully observed, although again her diction is pretty impenetrable. This is not helped by Britten’s writing for the female voices or Myfanwy Piper’s unnecessarily literary style in the text. When she says to the Governess “I don’t understand you” it is unfortunately all too true.
 
As the ghosts, both Richard Greager and Menai Davies are kept largely to the back of the stage. Their voices sound as though they are amplified to give them a supernatural echo. Given their peculiar status in the drama - are they real, or simply figments of the Governess’s over-active imagination? - this works well even when the amplified voices threaten to over-balance the ensemble passages. Greager does not manage the haunting quietness of the other-worldly Peter Pears in the original recording, but his melismata have pin-point accuracy and his diction in the Prologue is clearest of all.
 
The playing of the Stuttgart orchestra is superb, fully the equal of any of its rivals in the CD catalogue. Steuart Bedford had a long personal association with Britten’s music, and he conducted the first performances of Death in Venice when the composer was too ill to do so. His understanding of the idiom comes through in every bar, but it is not simply a copy of Britten’s - the closing bars are less overtly dramatic in a romantic way, more carefully controlled, and the results are equally as convincing.
 
The opera is well represented in the DVD catalogues. Currently available are versions conducted by Jakob Hrusa, Richard Hickox, David Stanhope and Daniel Harding. I have seen none of these although there was once a film by Petr Weigl - the soundtrack drawn from the Colin Davis audio recording - which was similarly realistic in style to the production under review here. The Richard Hickox recording also forms the basis for a film but the other versions are drawn from stage productions. All of them have received favourable reviews. I bought the DVD under review here when it was re-issued in 2008, and have enjoyed it several times since; it is a beautiful rendition even given some of the reservations which I have expressed. The bonus, a mere five minutes, consists of a brief synopsis of the opera given in German-accented English. The DVD comes with subtitles translated into German, French and Spanish and 4:3 format.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

See also review by Kevin Sutton of the previous release (Arthaus 100199)

Britten discography & review index: The Turn of the Screw

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