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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Turn of the Screw (1954)
The Governess – Rhian Lois (soprano)
Prologue/Quint – Robert Murray (tenor)
Miles – Leo Jemison (treble)
Flora – Alys Mererid Roberts (soprano)
Mrs Grose – Gweneth Ann Rand (soprano)
Miss Jessel – Francesca Chiejin (soprano)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
OperaGlass Works
Based on a stage production by Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson
Film directed by Dominic Best, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson
Filmed on location at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 10-17 October 2020
Orchestra recorded at Cadogan Hall, London, 2-6 November 2020
Subtitles in English
NTSC 16:9, PCM Stereo & DTS 5.1; All Regions
CHANDOS CHDVD5290 [112 mins]

This is a difficult disc to review. On the one hand it deserves a special hooray for existing, considering the circumstances of its creation and the changes that the team had to adjust to; but the finished product is rather fussy and, for me, difficult to love, so I’ll try to hold those things in tension below.

The hooray first. The enterprising company OperaGlass Works were all set to perform The Turn of the Screw in the atmospheric setting of Wilton’s Music Hall back in March 2020, but then lockdown happened and everything had to be shelved. So the team adapted and, rather than bin the whole project, they made a film of it instead, and this DVD is the result.

It’s filmed in Wilton’s, using every corner of the building rather than just the stage. The Prologue walks in from outdoors at the beginning, and several scenes take place in small, claustrophobic rooms away from the main space. The auditorium itself is filled with vegetation which suggests both the park at Bly and an old building falling into decay where nature encroaches into all sorts of places where it shouldn’t be.

They also use film techniques including blends and crossfades to create something that you definitely couldn’t experience in the theatre, so they have created a virtue out of the restriction and made something unique. They also do occasional fun things with the surround sound track on the DVD. The orchestral track is blended in from elsewhere, but the singing clearly takes place in Wilton’s because the acoustic changes with each room they’re in. I liked that natural touch: it brings the whole thing closer and makes it easier to empathise with.

The cast are really good, too. Rhian Lois is an excellent Governess, full of na´ve hope at the beginning and darkening into something both sinister and paranoid. Leo Jemison sings Miles beautifully, but there’s something genuinely weird about his performance, too, which is both compelling and sinister. I sometimes worry for the wellbeing of the children involved in this opera! They use an adult soprano for Flora, which is a shame, and nobody could mistake Alys Mererid Roberts for a little girl, either visually or vocally, but she sounds very good. Gweneth Ann Rand is a super Mrs Grose: she acts the housekeeper very carefully, treading a neat halfway house between the Governess’s ghost story and the down-to-earth ways of a country housekeeper, an her cries of “Dear God!” in Act 1 are spine-tingling.

Best of all, though, is Robert Murray, who sings both Quint and the Prologue with a much younger voice than we’ve become used to. He makes the Prologue vigorous and invests Quint with a touch of youthful energy that you might not expect. That makes him both more believable and more dangerous, though the makeup department went rather too far in making him look like a ghost! Francesca Chiejin’s Miss Jessel can’t quite keep up with him, but she sings the doomed former governess’s music very compellingly.

John Wilson directs the score with great skill, and his Sinfonia of London sound like the crew of virtuosi that they are. Remarkably, the orchestral track was recorded after the singers had finished, so the singers must have been leading the music rather than singing along to a pre-recorded soundtrack. That makes it all the more extraordinary that it worked out.

However, the very nature of the film is as much of a problem as a virtue, because on several occasions the intentionally film the apparatus of the film set, like cameramen cables and engineers. That’s not only distracting: it’s wrong-headed and distancing. It reminds me of other musical films such as Karajan’s DG Verdi Requiem, or Pappano’s EMI/Warner Tosca, that spend much of their time drawing attention to the accoutrements and technicalities of film-making rather than revelling in the artifice. I find that very off-putting, and the same effect happens here. Just when I found myself caught up in the action and involved in the story, we get a distracting shot of a cameraman, a sound desk or a props mover, which took me out of the moment and broke me from the story. And it’s all so unnecessary! If it’s a film then embrace the fact that it’s a film by using the medium to further the story: don’t draw attention to its film-ness like a metatheatrical clever-clogs!

Furthermore, the enforced social distancing of the time means that there are some very odd physical interactions. The characters can’t get close to one another, and that becomes very grating in some scenes, particularly when so much of this opera is about claustrophobia and entrapment. It was unavoidable at the time that it was filmed, but it’s one of the things that, for me, makes the final result difficult to love.

So, admirable as the film is, and laudable as is the effort behind it, this isn’t a top choice for the opera. The best version available is still Daniel Harding’s CD performance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on Warner. It’s seductively beautiful as well as deeply creepy, and it beats even the composer’s own recording on Decca. If you really want a film then go for Glyndebourne’s production conducted by Jakub Hrůša. It’s a brilliantly realised stage production which doesn’t shun the artifice of the theatre and, consequently, becomes altogether more involving than this film.

Simon Thompson

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