REVIEW: Opera North in The Turn Of The Screw, Leeds Grand Theatre, February 18. Further performances on February 21, 25 and 27, then touring until March 19. Box office: 0844 848 2700 or at leedsgrandtheatre.com
PART of the fascination of any ghost story – and Henry James certainly intended The Turn Of The Screw to be one – is its dabbling with a world that we can never fully comprehend or understand.
We are frightened, as James was himself, by his own creation, by the horrors that our imaginations are led to conjure. The sky – or hell – is the limit.
Myfanwy Piper’s libretto retains most of James’s ambiguities, while Britten’s music wonderfully clarifies their existence but offers no definitive answers to the questions they pose.
We know of Britten’s own obsession with the corruption of innocence. We also have plenty of recent examples of the terrors that may befall children put into care, like Miles and Flora here. The question for a director of the opera is how unambiguous to be.
Alessandro Talevi’s production was certainly probing when it first appeared in the autumn of 2010. This time round, he opens up new possibilities: he hardly misses an opportunity to interpret and he has schooled all six of his cast into finely honed acting, without exception.
In Sarah Tynan’s Governess we have a minutely judged, sexually repressed ingénue: she is as surprised as we are by a lonely Mrs Grose’s fondling attentions. She is equally puzzled by Miles’s come-hither kiss, delivered just before he climbs into her bed: this boy may be in thrall to Quint, but is also prey to rampaging hormones.
So, which of these signals leads up an emotional cul-de-sac? Or are they merely figments of the governess’s fevered imagination? The fact that such questions need to be asked at all is a sure indication that Talevi knows exactly how to provoke.
He also views the tale from the children’s point of view. At one point, we are shown a Narnia-style, fairy-tale landscape – easily taken for a Victorian orangery stocked with exotic flowers – in which younger versions of Miles and Flora can be seen frolicking.
In Madeleine Boyd’s majestic set, Bly is a Victorian pile in need of more than a spring clean, with Quint glimpsed in the tower behind its tall, murky windows. The building itself is part of the oppression all its inmates feel, doubtless compelling them into aberration.
Her costumes are regulation late Victorian, shading into Edwardian, but her hair-styles are notable: the Pre-Raphaelite cast of Miss Jessel’s Titian tresses, Quint’s bright orange thatch and side-burns, Flora’s Alice-curls, all contrast firmly with the governess’s prim blonde bun.
The props are carefully selected too: a manic rocking-horse, a giant four-poster, from whose roof Flora dangles her puppets, a school desk, and a large horn above a turntable, on which Miles “plays” parody Mozart; all bask in Matthew Haskins’ shadow-laden lighting.
After an exceptionally clear prologue, Nicholas Watts fashions a menacing Quint, likely to cause many a nightmare, while Eleanor Dennis’s pregnant Miss Jessel finds an unearthly tone equally guaranteed to spook. Heather Shipp’s seemingly phlegmatic Mrs Grose flashes into emotion more than once.
Tynan’s keenly-observed governess is a study in bafflement as she steadily loses her marbles to guilt and self-reproach. Jennifer Clark’s lively, mischievous Flora suggests someone much younger than she looked, while Tim Gasiorek’s well-tuned, light-voiced Miles acts his socks off.
All have reason to be grateful for the exceptional clarity with which Leo McFall’s orchestra paints their various motifs; one could hardly imagine their playing being more finely nuanced. Talevi’s revival may raise more questions than it answers, but it unquestionably held this audience in rapt appreciation.
Review by Martin Dreyer