Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
The Turn of the Screw
Jakub Hrusa, cond; Miah Persson (
); Toby Spence (
); Susan Bickley (
); Giselle Allen (
); Joanna Songi (
class="ARIAL12">); Thomas Parfitt (
); London PO
FRAMUSICA (DVD: 111:00)
Interviews with director and cast (22:00)
Britten’s intense version of Henry James’s dark, indeed disturbing, story has never really been out of the repertory of small opera companies. Scored for six singers and small orchestra, and usually with a simple, flexible set, it fits into almost any theater. First performed in Venice in 1954, it came right after
and, more importantly, I think, just in the wake of
, his cycle of songs to poems by Thomas Hardy. While it is not necessary to be consciously aware of the structure of the opera as scenes separated by a theme and 15 variations, the shape of the theme and the harmonic path of these interludes push our ears almost inevitably toward an ending that is not at the same time a conclusion.
This is Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production of 2006, as recorded in 2011. Though James is fairly clear about the relationship between Miles and Quint, Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, have made it more ambiguous. This is not the attitude of Kent, whose ghosts are real and whose Quint hugs and cuddles a bath towel-wrapped Miles. Paul Brown’s spare and unfussy set, subtly lit by Mark Henderson, is meant to recall the 1950s, when the opera was written, rather than the late-Victorian period, when the story appeared. A simple large moveable lattice and a multiple turntable allows for many variations quickly to be made.
Of the many productions of this opera I have seen, this is the most successful, and it succeeds by its understatement, apart from the moment between Miles and Quint mentioned. What puts it over is its excellent acting and singing. There is hardly a weak link in the cast. As the Prologue begins, a casually dressed Toby Spence is seated on the stage, leaning against a trunk into which go various hand props used later in the story. He is reading some old letters and remarks to us as if we had just come in, “It is a curious story.” As the ghosts, Spence and Giselle Allen wander into the real world as well as staying in their own, and give these apparitions a physicality that extends into their strong and engaged singing. These are certainly the scariest Quint and Miss Jessel I know. As the girl, Flora, Joanna Songi actually has one of the most difficult roles to bring off convincingly: She is supposed to be the younger of the two children but because it is musically an adult part, far more so than the music for Miles, it is usually sung by a woman, with resulting problems for the stage picture. Miles is a role that benefits almost more from good acting than good singing. Thomas Parfitt sings very well, indeed, to be sure, but he is a splendid actor. As Mrs. Grose, Susan Bickley is wonderfully expressive and brings a depth to the role not often encountered. But the key to holding this strange tale together lies with The Governess, and in Miah Persson, this production came up trumps. She has a gorgeous voice and acting gifts to match, but what was impressive is that she matched everyone in scale. It is, in fact, one of the great strengths of this production that it is a very unified performance, and this was matched in the pit by the conducting of Jakub Hrusa.
I have praised the acting, vocal and gestural, and Kent has taken advantage of the presence of cameras to give each singer’s face a central part in that task. All six act as much with their faces as with their bodies and, given the compactness of the Glyndebourne auditorium, it is likely that each nuance could easily be seen, and not only in François Roussillon’s well-executed camerawork. There are 22 minutes of interviews with Kent and the cast: Save them for after the performance. ArkivMusic currently lists four other DVD versions of the opera, none of which I have seen. Paul Ingram was fairly cool about Richard Hickox’s version on Opus Arte (29:2) and only partly enthusiastic about Daniel Harding’s traversal on a Bel Air DVD (31:5). I think this one is the one to beat.
FANFARE: Alan Swanson
Works on This Recording
Turn of the Screw, Op. 54 by Benjamin Britten
Joanna Songi (Soprano),
Giselle Allen (Soprano),
Susan Bickley (Mezzo Soprano),
Toby Spence (Tenor),
Miah Persson (Soprano),
Thomas Parfitt (Boy Soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1954; England
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