Notes and Editorial Reviews
BRITTEN The Turn of the Screw • Steuart Bedford, cond; Helen Field (Governess); Richard Greager (Prologue, Quint); Menai Davies (Mrs. Grose); Phyllis Cannan (Miss Jessel); Machiko Obata (Flora); Samuel Linay (Miles); Stuttgart Radio SO • ARTHAUS 102303 (DVD: 108+6:30, incl. introduction)
The palace theater in Schwetzingen is small. The stage is a mere 9 meters (30 feet) wide, but claims to be 38 meters (125 feet) deep, more than twice that of the auditorium, which with its balconies can seat 450 for an opera. It suits the dimensions of chamber opera and can provide the intimacy that subtle singing and acting can bring to Britten’s “curious story.” This is a re-release of the performance there from the Schwetzingen Festival of 1990, and seems not to have been reviewed here earlier.
Designing this opera is always a challenge for the scenographer, not because of the period—it is usually set in the 1890s, when the story was written, though the recent Glyndebourne production moved it to the 1950s, when the opera was made—but because of its many and swift scene changes. Even with its orchestral interludes charting the 15 variations on the opening theme, there is little time for anything elaborate to be done, and finding the balance between the abstract and the real is tricky at best, especially in a story where that very distinction is also blurred. John Gunter, the designer, and Michael Hampe, the stage director, use a mixture of real props and projections upon a fairly close-in backdrop, and let the period be more defined by Chiara Donato’s 1890s costumes. There’s not much room to move around, and Britten and Myfanwy Piper, the librettist, do not ask for much in that line.
The Prologue is usually sung by the tenor who plays Quint. In this production, Richard Greager is dressed as an old man reflecting on an old letter he has come across, and he is then made into the younger man who was actively and successfully “free with everyone,” as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper (Menai Davies), tells the Governess (Helen Field). Davies is good as Mrs. Grose and in scene 5, where she tells the Governess the background of the situation she has come to, she and Field make an exciting musical moment. The following scene, the lesson, is the first where the children have significant things to do. Flora (Machiko Obata) is a hard role to make believable, as she is supposed to be several years younger than Miles (Samuel Linay), but she has a technically more demanding part to sing and act, and Harde lets her be older in what she does. Linay is less of an actor, but he sings clearly and affectingly throughout. Greager comes into his own as Quint and makes a threatening and unsubtle presence. Phyllis Cannan is a wonderful Miss Jessel, and her controlled outrage at her betrayal by Quint in the colloquy which opens the Second Act is a match for Greager. As the Governess, Field is restrained as an actress. I don’t think we see the Governess’s inner turmoil developing, but she gets better as we move toward the climactic last scene, which is chilling musically, if not quite emotionally.
Steuart Bedford was one of the artistic directors of the Aldeburgh Festival at the time of this performance, but had even then a long connection with the music of Britten. The playing in this performance is crisp, exact, and dispassionate. I assume there is an audience present, but they are deadly silent, and we never see or hear them—even in the interludes, in which the orchestra (or, rather, mostly an expressive Steuart Bedford) is brilliantly lit against a pitch black background, or at the end, when there is applause. Nor, come to think of it, do we hear any stage noise at these moments.
This is a quite good production and is to be commended for being so. Britten’s own 1954 recording, with the singers of the original production, is still in circulation, especially in this centenary year, and, if I count it right, there are six others as well, including this one and a differing second one by Bedford from 1993. In 36:6, I called the recent Glyndebourne performance under Jakub Hr??a (on Fra Musica) the one to beat. It still is.
FANFARE: Alan Swanson