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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The Turn of the Screw, Op 54, opera in two acts to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the short story by Henry James (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
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 DVD [112 mins]
I would like to offer a slightly different perspective of this DVD from Simon Thompson, my colleague whose elegant review appeared last month, minutes after I had finished watching it for a second time. Without wishing to sound gushing, his piece seems to me to epitomise the literate, balanced and informed level of critique this site has aimed to publish over recent decades.
Respect for something is considered and cognitive; loving, or to a lesser degree liking it is emotional classical conditioning, an unavoidable response. Psychologists refer to an initial reaction which is maintained and even amplified during subsequent exposures as positive reinforcement. I was intrigued and moved by this production first time round; it crept up on me (almost literally) still more on repetition. Britten’s searching music is clever and precise rather than complex and hard to love, its allure contained within a parochial English intimacy, a prism of repression via which terrifying universal anxieties are refracted. This is my second favourite Britten opera after Peter Grimes – it embodies a perfect amalgam of formal balance and psychological ambiguity.
In musical terms I found this performance to be exceptional. To my ears the six voices and the 14 players involved interact on entirely equal terms. All these musicians seem blessed with an intuitive appreciation of Britten’s textural and harmonic sophistication and their inspired communication of this composer’s remarkable marriage of clarity, colour and characterisation – the latter as vital for the exposed instrumentalists as it is for the vocalists – arguably renders this the best performed and recorded DVD of the opera to date.
For me Simon Thompson’s major reservation about this issue actually amounts to one of this fascinating production’s greatest strengths. The circumstances of the film’s conception and existence are made (via wonderfully succinct captions prior to the Prologue) as relevant to what we see as the music and narrative. I don’t think either John Wilson (or for that matter Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson, the film’s producers) set out to make the definitive account of The Turn Of the Screw; I think the goal instead was to come up with an aesthetically credible rendition of the opera, appropriate to the unusual zeitgeist, which would constitute a convincing Plan B (the original Plan A being the expectation that this production, prepared and rehearsed for live shows at the Wilton Hall, would take place as planned and would not, as inevitably transpired, be cancelled abruptly after the announcement of lockdown). Cadell and her talented team were thus forced into a reconfiguration due to unfortunate circumstances which they have seen fit to skilfully weave into the fabric of this production. That they have gone way beyond ‘making the best of a bad job’ is a remarkable achievement. I for one certainly did not feel the narrative or musical flow to be compromised at all; skilfully incorporated, subtly edited footage of the actual recording process actually enhances the attraction of this reading and archives the unusualness of the circumstances behind the production. It also makes compelling viewing during transitions between scenes which might otherwise have been accompanied by dull captions. These interludes could seem out of kilter for sure, but they here they feel in keeping with the strangeness, isolation and madness at the heart of Henry James’ original story; these latter characteristics are among the most unsettling aspects of the ongoing pandemic, after all.
I wholeheartedly concur with Simon Thompson’s comments about the singers who are uniformly excellent, and I would like to single out the performances of Rhain Lois whose strong tone, impeccable, unexaggerated diction and subtle dramatic skills are crucial in binding the entire edifice together, whilst the treble Leo Jemison has in my view succeeded in realising what is close to the definitive Miles; his characterisation is certainly unsettling and quite possibly the most convincing I have yet encountered on screen – whilst his singing is also very fine.
My colleague’s remarks about the surround sound are also spot on – the engineers have come up with a number of remarkably atmospheric refinements which improve the entire experience without compromising the spirit of the music. Whilst I have not seen Jakub Hrůša’s Glyndebourne performance to which he refers (hitherto my preferred filmed account has been Hickox on Opus Arte - review) I can only conclude that potential purchasers of this recent issue will not feel at all short-changed by this production, especially if they are prepared to indulge the innovations I have sought to defend and which offer a fresh and pertinent commentary on the lives many of us now lead. John Wilson’s characteristically meticulous preparation is self-evident; his execution of the score, along with his hand-picked principals from the Sinfonia of London provides the ideal sonic backcloth for what proved (to my ears, eyes and heart at least) to be a novel and completely absorbing theatrical experience.