IS there a more mysteriously creepy story in all of opera and “serious” fiction than Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, orchestrated by Benjamin Britten?
Forests have been felled to provide the trees for the paper on which generations of experts, philosophers, students and musicologists have written their thoughts on the meaning of this elusive piece. Now it comes to the intimate and sometimes claustrophobic confines of Bath’s Ustinov Studio, a pre-Christmas treat from artistic director Deborah Warner. This is the second opera she has staged at the venue, and it bewitches and terrifies its audience – as it should. Here it is orchestrated for two pianos, a celeste and a flautist, adding to the atmosphere of the extraordinary piece.
Director Isabelle Kettle doesn’t attempt to make it easy by providing a definitive solution to the puzzle of why Miles and Flora’s uncle/guardian doesn’t want to be contacted by the new governess, why Miles has been expelled from school or whether there are actually malign ghostly presences in Bly. What she does is to create a space where the unexpected and the unexplained converge in a maelstrom of doubt, fear and obsession.
Is it a story of its time (1898) or a timeless story? Does it tell of fears of the unfamiliar and what “grooming” really means? You have to decide in this mesmerising production.
English tenor Xavier Hetherington, in the dual roles of the prologue narrator and Peter Quint,
has worked with dancer and choreographer Jonathan Goddard (well known locally for his work with Frome-based Mark Bruce Company), creating the powerfully disturbing movement that underpins his performance. His exceptional voice is hugely flexible and compellingly persuasive.
Sarah Gilford’s Governess is full of fantastic longings and self-justifying explanations, ramping up both tension and affection as she gets to know the precociously charming children. Emma Bell’s compelling Mrs Grose teeters between determination and doubt.
The children are at the heart of this story, and Oliver Michael and Maia Greaves are exceptional singers and actors, taking on the huge demands of these mysterious roles with astonishing maturity. Elin Pritchard completes the cast as the unfortunate Miss Jessel, co-erced into a position she’s reluctant to take, but unable to resist.
If you want a brilliantly envisioned and performed Christmas mystery, try this one – and I defy you to find a watertight solution.
Photographs by Ellie Kurttz