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Gothic in All its Guises 1
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Gothic in All its Guises 1
By George Fleeton

The Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten

George Fleeton

George Fleeton

The DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) Conservatory of Music and Drama presented Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw in a superb production, directed and designed by Vivian Coates, which I caught on opening night, January 15, in the DIT Gleeson Theatre.

The production marked Britten’s birth 100 years ago, and it featured seven DIT vocal soloists and a 13-piece symphony orchestra – all students of music performance at the Conservatory.

[It was perhaps unfortunate that this clashed with another, earlier Britten opera, Albert Herring, which was staged by the Royal Irish Academy of Music, in the Project Arts Centre, just a few blocks north of the Gleeson Theatre].

Henry James was a New York-born writer of novels and novellas and The Turn of the Screw is an excellent example of the latter genre.

In 1961, Jack Clayton directed a brilliant film version of Turn of the Screw, with Deborah Kerr, called The Innocents, one of the greatest ghost stories in all cinema.

Some time before that, Britten had premièred his operatic version of James’ story at the Venice Biennale, on the stage of the Teatro La Fenice, with Jennifer Vyvyan and Peter Pears.

The enigma of this perfect chamber piece is that it will always raise more questions than it answers.

There are no shock tactics: just the beautifully written and delivered creation of the sinister, gothic ambience at Bly, a lonely country estate where the 20 year-old unnamed governess is engaged to mind two children, and where she becomes obsessed with the possibility of their corruption and possession by the earthbound spirits of two dead servants, one of whom is her predecessor Miss Jessel.

This production was assured, elegant and vivid.

Suitably prim and repressed, soprano Jennifer Davis, as the suspense is built subtly but relentlessly around her, conveyed so well a respectable façade wrestling with unspeakable turbulence beneath the surface.

And so we are puzzled, reflective, wanting to know and hear more, sharing her frustrations, sensing her bottled-up hysteria, as she fights the devil – or so she would have us believe – for two human souls.

Are the ghosts in the tower, at the terrace windows, across the lake, on the landing, in the schoolroom, just figments of her imagination?

Does Mrs Grose (finely sung by Kelley Lonergan) know more than she tells?

What is the significance of glass and water, so often referred to, during the well staged apparitions of Peter Quint (Lawrence Thackeray) and Miss Jessel (a memorable performance from Maria Hughes)?

What was young Miles’ crime at boarding school which led to his expulsion?

Are he and his younger sister Flora as innocent as they appear?

Or is the governess simply mad, like Hamlet, but north north-west?

All these imponderables are foregrounded in Britten’s non-diatonic, atonal music, with its neurotic, percussive, stark overtones.

None of Henry James’ pre-Joycean stream of consciousness technique – the continuous ebb and flow of thought and reaction – is sacrificed, neither in Piper’s libretto, in Britten’s music, in Coates’ direction nor in David Brophy’s animated conducting.

There will be no ‘time-honoured, bread sauce of the happy ending’, as James wrote in another conext.

And so this marvellous opera retains its secrets to the end, and beyond…..

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For my review of the 2011 Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw, see the Down News Arts column dated August 26, 2011.

As I don’t have a recording of this opera, it is difficult to recommend one, but I have it on good authority that the recording conducted by Britten himself, in 1955 with the English Opera Group Orchestra and the original cast, for Decca. is the best.