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The Turn of the Screw Reviewed By George Fleeton
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The Turn of the Screw

Reviewed by George Fleeton

The third and final opera, beamed live into the Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast this summer from Glyndebourne on August 21st, was Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a modern piece from 1954.

It followed Wagner’s Meistersinger and Mozart’s Don Giovanni – reviewed here on July 12th and August 7th respectively – and was easily the pick of the three.

The dramatic enigma of Henry James’ novella and of Britten’s opera is: what exactly happened in Bly between the children, Miles and Flora, their former governess Miss Jessel and the deceased manservant Peter Quint?

An ambiguous answer of sorts is of course to be found in James’ original story published in 1898, and this in turn takes us, in my mind, back to the paradoxes and complexities of an even greater work, Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre in 1847.

Other possibilities were later raised in Jack Clayton’s superb film version, The Innocents, in 1961, adapted for him by the wondrous writing team of John Mortimer and Truman Capote (with Deborah Kerr as the new governess, now given a name, Miss Giddens).

A more recent interpretation which impressed me was given in Down Arts Centre – due to re-open, by the way, in all its refurbished and extended splendour on December 1stwhen actress Philippa Urquhart brought her touring solo performance of The Turn of the Screw to Downpatrick in April 2006, in a reading to which there was no easy, bread-sauce of a happy dénouement and James’ marvellous text retained its secrets to the end, and beyond.

Britten’s chamber opera leaves us equally puzzled, reflective, wanting to know and hear  more, sharing the naïve Governess’ frustrations about the events she encounters, sensing in the music, at each turn of the screw, her bottled-up hysteria as she fights the devil (possibly reincarnated in this version as child molesters?) for the souls of her two charges.

In this Glyndebourne production, typically and unnecessarily fussy and distracting in its design and staging, Britten’s non-diatonic, atonal music seems to underscore the figments of the Governess’ imagination, as she confronts the ghosts in the tower of Bly House, at the terrace windows, across the lake, in the schoolroom.

Does Mrs Grose the housekeeper know more than she tells? What was young Miles’ crime at boarding school which led to his expulsion?

And is the new Governess simply mad, like Hamlet, north-by-northwest, from the moment she arrives in Essex by train, and before the strange and the sinister are embroidered in to her mind and her sanity?

(Now that was a brilliant Glyndebourne scene transition, coming immediately after the short Prologue, but whose promise dissipated as the opera went on).

The singing in this production was outstanding: Swedish soprano Miah Persson as the Governess (Miss Persson had recorded a BBC Radio 3 song recital, in Downpatrick no less, last summer), but the revelation was 12 year old treble Thomas Parfitt as Miles in a performance that grew measurably in stature across the evening.

This is not Puccini however, nor the five hundred year tradition of the eight note octave which he so beautifully exploited, as I was asked to explain to some audience members, at the interval, who were finding the whole experience a bit perplexing.

Britten’s music is post-Schoenberg, the inherited musical bedlam of the scale of twelve equal notes, and it is much harder work, for both the singers and the audience.

Its precedents may be found in the whole tone modes of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), in the even more atonal Hungarian modes of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and of course in Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), all significant operas which we see  too rarely in these parts.

In his neurotic, percussive and stark music for The Turn of the Screw, I felt Britten was trying to echo James’ pre-Joycean stream of consciousness technique and its continuous ebb and flow of action and reaction, while ratcheting the Governess tighter and tighter into the corner from which there is only one, fatal escape route.

If you enjoyed perhaps a first encounter here with Britten’s distinctive music, it is worth seeking out Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd and Death in Venice in the run up to his centenary in 1913.

These are arguably the most important operas ever written in English.

But beware: 2013 is also the bicentenary of both Verdi and Wagner and so expect the opera world to pull out all its big Italian hitters and heavy German lifters at the risk of overshadowing England’s little Britten.

**

On a different note, again at the QFT, on October 9th, there is the live relay of the ballet La Esmeralda, directly from the newly-restored Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

The new season of eleven Metropolitan operas, live in HD, kicks off with Donizetti’s Anna Bolena on October 15th.

There is a new production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 15th, 17th and 19th.

Opera Theatre Company’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank is at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s on October 19th and 20th.

The 60th Wexford Festival Opera begins on October 21st.

On October 22nd in the QFT I shall be introducing the re-release of the film version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story on the occasion of its 50th birthday.

There is a single performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall in November 1st.

On November 19th, local singers Debra Stuart and Catherine Harper present ‘Opera on a Plate’ in the Cuan Restaurant in Strangford, Co. Down

And Verdi’s La Traviata is at Dublin’s Grand Canal Theatre from November 23rd to 27th.

All of these events, and many more brought to us locally by Down Arts Centre, will be reviewed here in due course – after I have reported back from the 68th Venice Film Festival next month.

**

This coming academic term, George Fleeton will be teaching four new courses relevant to such performance events as described above.

The Silent Cinema and Opera for the Terr!f!ed begin at Stranmillis University College Belfast on September 20th, and Callas La Diva Divina and Best Adapted Screenplays start in Queen’s University Belfast from September 26th.