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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)
The Turn of the Screw, op. 54 (1954) [111:25]
Miah Persson (soprano) – Governess; Toby Spence (tenor) – Prologue/Quint; Susan Bickley (soprano) – Mrs Grose; Giselle Allen (soprano) – Miss Jessel; Joanna Songi (soprano) – Flora; Thomas Parfitt (treble) - Miles
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hruša
rec. Glyndebourne, August 2011
Stage Director: Jonathan Kent; Video Director: François Roussillon
Picture format: HD – Colour. All regions
Audio formats: PCM Stereo 2.0/DTS 5.1 Surround
Booklet notes and Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Extra features: A curious story [11:54], Behind the drama [9:50].
FRA MUSICA FRA 507 [130:19]


As the audience settles and chats Toby Spence’s Prologue is already on stage. That’s the first surprise. The barrier between what is real and what isn’t is now blurred. He’s reading from a pile of letters with his soft, bemused opening ‘It is a curious story’. It is marked ‘quietly’ and he soon picks up volume, along with a spool of film, the second surprise, as is his sweater and jeans. This isn’t the mid-19th century of the original but the 1950s, away from any comfortably distant Victorian evocation of the supernatural. The perspective is to be closer. That spool of film is brought to life by an instant back-projection of two children playing: A pity it isn’t the two we later see. Spence gazes out with a glazed expression when introducing the mystery that the guardian, their uncle, must not be contacted by the governess. In doing so he momentarily takes on that same unearthliness he has as the ghost of Quint.
For Act 1 Scene 1 the Governess is in a train not a horse carriage. Britten’s timpani backcloth serves just as well. You instantly identify with Miah Persson’s openness in her hopes and doubts on starting a new job. Aurally you might later twig that her descending melisma contemplating the mystery of life at ‘Why did I come?’. It is the first appearance of a motif much used by Quint when cajoling the boy Miles. In the orchestral Variation 1 you see as link a toy train travelling on the outer of two revolving stages. It’s the set designer’s manifestation of a screw turning! The set has a central structure of glass windows and a door. Beyond there’s the lurking span of the branches of a huge dead tree. Scene changes, effected by the movement of the two stages, are disturbing in their sheer efficiency, but then so is Britten’s music. The clarity of both in this Blu-Ray disc draws you into the experience. Scene 2 is not in house porch but in the living room with housekeeper Mrs Grose silently hoovering. Persson’s Governess immediately forms a happy relationship with all. Its intimacy is clarified by the warmth yet also the strength of purpose of the solo violin accompaniment. It’s just one example of the perspicacity of Jakub Hruša’s direction. Moreover, the video direction of François Roussillon fully exploits the intimacy of the DVD medium, of this opera and of Jonathan Kent’s stage direction. Miles bows to the Governess who straightaway strokes his cheek. The music carries this action with no sense of opportunism while Thomas Parfitt’s Miles gives her a warm, knowing smile as if that of Quint.
The backdrop to Scene 4 here is a greenhouse rather than a tower. Persson idyllically caresses a white dahlia as she’s so happy to do the uncle’s bidding. There’s that descending melisma again. As she luxuriates a vast shadow appears rear stage right. The uncle? No. Then she’s scared. It’s creepier that we don’t see Quint here looking steadily at her as in the stage direction; this happens in the next scene anyway. The difficulty with the lack of a tower is that it makes little sense of her line ‘Some fearful madman lock’d away there’ (22:03). In Scene 5 Flora and Miles ride a hobby-horse. Here Miles rides Flora on the settee which is suggestive of our later confirmation of their lack of innocence. Miles whips Flora, but as it’s a DVD we can see he’s whipping the settee. Susan Bickley’s larger-than-life and likeable housekeeper, by turns tempestuous and conciliatory, reserves her greatest paroxysm for realizing the Governess has seen Quint, with the mantra ‘Dear God, is there no end to his dreadful ways?’ This really makes its mark.
The highlight of Scene 6 is Miles’s ‘Malo’ song. The 12-year-old Thomas Parfitt’s voice is finely focused but fragile and transitory like every treble. Here it is poignantly allied to guilt at loss of innocence. At the end he and Persson try to stare each other out and he reaches out his hand towards her cheek which she protects. In Scene 7 Flora has her equivalent song to her doll. With the also excellent Joanna Songi we hear a fledgling voice rather than a transitory one. Scene 8 has the boldest revision. In the original Quint is in the tower, Miles in the garden in his night things. Here Miles is in the bath, Quint at the window in silhouette. Miles and Quint match each other in spectral glissandi and as the scene comes to a climax they hug one another having gone out into the softly falling snow. Flora takes her head out of the wash basin where it’s been for ages so she can be with the equally and ever wet Miss Jessel.
Act 2 Scene 1’s meeting between Quint and Miss Jessel is given an added shiver. Through the aid of the revolving stage they cast spells over the children sleeping in their beds. In Scene 2 the children don’t walk in like choirboys to settle on a tomb but are already sitting on it. The scenery revolves into sight, throwing bits of wreaths left and right. Persson tries to touch Parfitt’s cheek from which this time he draws away. He takes her hands in his as he challenges ‘Does my uncle think what you think?’ The Governess resolving to escape is naturally enough soon found packing in her bedroom. Only as her dressing table revolves clearly into view in Scene 3 do we see Miss Jessel is at it, giving extra piquancy to her line ‘Here my tragedy began’. The problem with this change, however, is that this is supposed to be the schoolroom which is for the Governess ‘the heart of my kingdom’ (74:11). The confrontation with Miss Jessel is at the schoolroom desk. For all that, Giselle Allen’s grim, slimy yet also piercingly tragic Miss Jessel, complete with Verdian elegy, is moving.
In Scene 4 a thoughtful, pained Parfitt strokes Persson’s cheek and only the intervention of Spence stops him divulging the truth. At this point the Governess sings ‘The candle’s out’ (84:25) and Miles replies ‘’twas I who blew it’. This is all rather awkward when the candle has been updated to a lamp, although neatly for the ubiquitous metaphor a revolving one. The desk with the letter Quint successfully tempts Miles to take obligingly revolves nearby. In the final scene when rebuked by Flora and the housekeeper the Governess owns she has failed and lost her innocence. Bickley, in recitative, grippingly reveals that she has too. Persson and Parfitt again clasp hands, this time at Persson’s initiative. This time Quint is betrayed: failure for him, fatal salvation for Miles.
This superlatively sung, played, acted and directed production sets a gold standard for future staged versions. I say that even allowing for the fact that the updating creates some anomalies. The opera comes with 22 minutes of extras. These illuminate why this Glyndebourne 2011 version is so distinctive, how it developed and the nature of the journey for the performers.
Michael Greenhalgh