Ambiguity is the essence of the Henry James tale on which Britten’s Turn of the Screw is based. Do the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel manipulate the children, or are they figments of the Governess’s imagination? The short answer is that they are both, and Louisa Muller’s intriguing production presents a clear dichotomy between ghosts as large as life on stage, and the naïve yet fevered emotions of Sophie Bevan’s interpretation of the Governess.
This opera may seem unsuitable for Garsington in a summer of broad daylight in this glass-walled auditorium. Ghosts thrive in dimly lit surroundings, yet the dying of the light eclipses the clarity as the governess draws us into her own world. Her attempt to illuminate the past losses of these unreachable children, Miles and Flora, merely reflects her own lambent curiosity back at her, and the moment Flora finally contradicts her vision of Miss Jessel, and demands to be taken away is strongly emphasised. This is a key to Ms Muller’s staging, where the children may appear less spooky than in some productions, but the Governess transitions from joyous, childlike innocence, playing games with the children, to a young woman disturbed by her own inability to influence events.
Higher powers than she possesses must be in play, and the characters on stage, half-reflected in the glass walls from where I sat, even seemed to walk out into the gardens. A trick of the light if ever there was one. But Miss Jessel really did walk in after wandering around outside, while Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting allows Quint to occasionally appear faintly behind the murky screens of Christopher Oram’s imposingly faded designs. And then there is the water: at first a mere trickle where Miles can sail a paper boat he’s made and Flora can drown her doll, but in Act II a small pond amidst the flagstones of the old house. Miss Jessel, always represented by watery aspects of Britten’s music, has picked up the sopping doll earlier to hug it close, and later walks into the water, as does the Governess after Miles has died in her arms. A wonderful ending, only spoiled by some audience member letting us all know prematurely that the opera is over.
The ghosts may only haunt the Governess’s mind, but under the baton of Richard Farnes the music and singers haunt our minds. Ed Lyon made a marvellously menacing Quint, his hidden power carried with well-judged stage reticence, fine vocal strength and pianissimo, and Katherine Broderick’s dark toned soprano underpinned her eerily real Miss Jessel. That all three women are clothed alike in voluminous black Victorian dresses gives added weight to the sombre atmosphere in which the lonely children find themselves, and Kathleen Wilkinson’s mezzo-soprano gave Mrs Grose the housekeeper a steadying influence over the beautifully sung Miles and Flora of Leo Jemison and Elen Willmer.
But the evening belonged to Sophie Bevan’s extraordinary Governess, the focus of this production, whose voice ranged from youthful happiness to heart-stopping emotion, with quiet moments of troubled tranquillity. Wonderful — a memorable interpretation.
Until July 19 — details here.