Return of the Screw

26 Oct

Glyndebourne’s Turn of the Screw is back again – its fourth incarnation – and I saw the performance on 24th October.  It’s one of their strongest productions and repays seeing again even though Jonathan Kent wasn’t back to rehearse it – too busy in Chichester doing an outstanding job with Gipsy – well worth a visit if you can get a ticket.

I have mixed feelings about Turn of the Screw.  I find it compelling and gripping to watch.  At the end of a good performance, I feel rather as I do after Wozzeck or Winterreise or King Lear, wrung out and not really feeling like applauding or anything much.  Technically, it seems to me to be almost faultless, the scenes just the right length, the vocal writing impeccable and inexorably building up to the climax.  You watch fixated as the tragedy unfolds.  And yet, and yet.  I find the ghosts and their relationship with the children most problematic in the sense that I find it quite hard to pin down exactly what it is that causes the possession.  And that perhaps says more about my literal approach.  I find Myfanwy Piper’s text for the ghosts, in particular, difficult to take.  I don’t know what it means.  While this gives scope for directors, I rarely find that it’s satisfactorily addressed and that feeling of unresolved ambiguity also leaves me with a slightly unsatisfied feeling.  Probably my fault.

One thing which struck me at this performance which I’d not heared before was the little crackle of percussion and trumpet preceding Peter Quint’s first entry which reminded me very strongly of that associated with Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I think it would be interesting if directors could explore more the attraction that the ghosts possess for the children.  We always seem to see Peter Quint in his black valet’s clothes and Miss Jessel in dripping black like some refugee from Rusalka.  But don’t they also present a world that’s different from the stifling boringness of Mrs Grose and the Governess?  Isn’t there a magic to it?  Could they be attractive?  Does there need to be a sexual element between the ghosts and the children?   Isn’t it more about an idea of an alternative?  And is there not something in Britten about that attraction of being outside the norm?

Jonathan Kent’s production doesn’t explore that particularly but it’s very good at everything else.  Paul Brown’s set is mesmerisingly good with its multiple revolves and ability to achieve scene changes seamlessly – if, these days, a bit noisily.  I think that the updating to the 1950s works well in creating the right sort of social ambience and Natalia Romaniw’s Governess nicely caught the element of social climbing about her.  Perhaps some of the focus has become fuzzier over time.  This time I missed an element of knowingness and defiance about Miles that previous productions brought out and I seem to recall greater ambivalence about the Mrs Grose/Governess relationship before.  That didn’t stop the opera packing a huge punch.

The cast is strong.  Ms Romaniw makes an impulsive, naive Governess, she sings it beautifully and her diction (as was the case with everyone) made the surtitles more or less redundant.  This was a hugely promising performance, making me want to hear her in more Britten and much else.  Anne Mason is excellent as Mrs Grose, though I missed the sense that I’ve had from others, that she was taking Flora away as much to get her away from the Governess as for any other reason.  She sang it convincingly and acted it convincingly.  Miranda Keys made a fearsome Miss Jessel and others have made her grief and bitterness more moving – there’s a bit more to the relationship between the two than Piper’s libretto or this production make clear.  Anthony Gregory was a young, handsome Prologue and Quint.  I could have done perhaps with an extra ounce more power, but this was encouragingly promising singing and good sinister acting.

The children were pretty strong.  Tom Delgado-Little sang clearly as Miles and brought his own personality to the part.  Louise Woodley was also excellence as Flora and got the best out of her burst of anger at the Governess – one of those harrowing moments in the opera.

Leo McFall conducted confidently and the orchestra played as well as it should.  It felt like a strong ensemble performance and every word told.

So, it’s good to see the show again.  The audience on this Friday night wasn’t full, but I hope that audiences on the road will be better.  Whatever my doubts about the work, it’s an enthralling evening and, at the end, I was silent and didn’t feel like applauding – which is as it should be.

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