Classical / The Turn of the Screw Broomhill, Kent

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The Independent Culture
A nightmarish Home Alone with predatory servants, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw shocks like no other opera. His Henry James adaptation does not have to spell out what the children suffer; it makes its drama by showing how it feels to be abuser as well as victim. On one side, there are the fear and the crumbling moral certainties; on the other, a sensual longing that truly appals as its music unfolds in honeyed, seductive lines for the tenor.

However it came to be openly produced in Fifties England is a small miracle of stage magic, or perhaps of national hypocrisy. What did they tell the children who first took two of the leading roles? How did the children handle their own view of what went on in the big house at Bly? Even now, the action has potential cringe-making scenes when the adult characters do not want to believe what they know.

Directing the work for the Broomhill summer season, Caroline Ward faced the facts honestly and made them credible. The cast showed in their faces what the libretto omits. It did not need a sophisticated staging, but drew on subtle observation, understanding and portrayal. And it trusted the music. Letting Miles simply face out to the audience as his piano practice grew furiously concentrated made Britten's orchestral piano part eloquent of the boy's inner turmoil as it moved from mock-Clementi to Schubert gone sour. The outcome was an experience both intimate and intense.

Broomhill's high, narrow stage became an ally for the designer Jane Singleton in heightening the atmosphere, as long silk curtains unfolded and light (by John Bishop) played obsessively on them. Apart from a minimum of furniture, the stage was bare, with strong colour reserved for animating the scene- and mood-changes. The ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were present as solid flesh or giant shadows, fears and premonitions made tangible. They could never have been a trick of the whistle-blowing Governess's imagination.

In both music and staging the sense of ensemble held firm as everybody worked together to open up the collusions. Even the children's games - another cringe factor - wobbled on the edge of danger. Roseline Tessier- Lemoyne (Flora) and Thomas Appleton (Miles) sang with spirit and accuracy while behaving as if they had had the fright of their lives. The tenor, Shawn Bartels, after singing the Prologue in a conventional post-Peter Pears way, found a fresh approach to Quint that matched charm and risk without needing a sadistic edge.

As the Governess, Lynne Davies moved from polite inhibition - you could hardly hear a word of her first exchanges with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose - to a powerful mix of helplessness and determination. Her emotional letter- writing scene, the voice conveying all she could not write, drew a bravo from the gallery. Carol Rowlands, too, matched musical to character development for Mrs Grose. As singing pure and simple, the shortest, least complex role, the siren Miss Jessel, drew from Beverley O'Regan Thiele an extra expressive and vocal dimension.

Eos, Broomhill's resident orchestra, includes well-known players who were up to the demands of this exposed, chamber-like score. They were conducted with feeling and energy by Charles Hazlewood. It was hard to get the timpani in balance, but then the wood-panelled theatre's acoustic is kind to everything. Broomhill in its short operatic life has created high expectations. This staging of a sensitive, not to say hot, work met them with quiet flair.

n Further Performances: 24, 25, 28, 30, 31 Aug. Booking: 01892 517720

ROBERT MAYCOCK

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