The Turn of the Screw, Britten Studio, Snape
A taut, angry production on the composer's home turf finds thrills aplenty still in an adaptation of James's ghost story
Sunday 01 November 2009
The "soft, thick light" described in Old Suffolk, Henry James's memoir of his 1879 journey to Aldeburgh and seeing the submerged skyline of medieval Dunwich, hung low over Snape last weekend.
Though premiered in Venice, Britten's adaptation of James's novella, The Turn of the Screw, belongs to this area, just as Bly, the estate in the story, belongs to its enigmatic landscape of marsh and field. Written and rehearsed in Aldeburgh, this is Britten's masterpiece: serenely complete in its circling 12-note variations, yet permeable enough to permit a variety of responses to its theme of "drowned innocence" and its unreliable narrator.
Last month, David McVicar's production of The Turn of the Screw returned to the Coliseum. Dustcloths, fallen leaves and "that kiss" was how I filed it away two years ago, next to Deborah Warner's equivocal Royal Opera House production, Katie Mitchell's dreamlike film and Jonathan Kent's startling 1950s update for Glyndebourne. I thought I'd seen it all: Quints pale or vital; governesses fond or frigid; mildewed mirrors and Gladstone bags; the comfortable hum of a mid-century train set, ambiguities in every shade of grey. But Neil Bartlett's taut, angry production for Aldeburgh Music concluded with a kiss more shocking than McVicar's, as the governess fastened her lips to those of her dead charge, exultant in grief.
"You read into it the evil that you know," James said of his novella. For Bartlett, that evil is the pitiless certainty of the moral crusader, here an accidental murderess. Slight of figure, pretty of face, and several inches shorter than Crispin Lord's long-legged, insouciant Miles, Anna Devin's governess became the villain – scribbling feverishly in her diary, collating evidence, a suffocating, desperate termagant – while Lawrence Wiliford's spry, seductive Quint was more force of nature than force of evil. Played out on a tight, bare, square stage in the Britten Studio, with the 12 instrumentalists of the Britten Pears Orchestra at floor-level, Bartlett's production reversed the standard practice of stripping back to the climax. The heavy, ugly furniture of schoolroom and servants' quarters stood neatly lined against the walls of the studio in Act I, then crowded the stage in Act II, placed inconveniently, haphazardly, reflecting the disintegration of order.
Cheeks whipped coarse and red by Suffolk salt-spray, Catharin Carew's strong, clearly sung Mrs Grose played to the snobbery of James's original; turning a blind, bovine eye to Miles's highly sexualised behaviour with his sister, Flora (Merrin Lazyan), and a subservient one to the governess. Flora's jealousy and suspicion were immediate. Who better for her to turn to than Miss Jessel (Norah King), with her heroic misery, weed-wet hair and dragging, menstrual figures for low strings? Compelling in an opera house, the yearning, turning, cloying figures of Britten's score had unnerving intensity in the small space. This is, after all, a chamber opera, and under the conductor Garry Walker the young singers and instrumentalists delivered a perceptively detailed, lyrical performance, with exceptional work from flautist Laura Pou and percussionist Pedro Segundo.
For those with a strong stomach, Mariele Neudecker's installation, Stay Forever and Never Come Back – the first work to be created in the Aldeburgh Residencies for Visual Artists – offered further commentary. Here was a miniature landscape of abandoned buildings and blasted trees, crumbling proscenium arches and latent violence, a looped and reversed tape of Britten's score, and three films in which half-seen figures move, their settings echoed in the view from the windows of the Dovecote Studio. Neudecker's installation will remain in Snape until December, while Aldeburgh Music enjoys a Kings Place residency this month.
Sadly, Bartlett's production is not part of it. Rehearsing so intensively for something few will have seen may seem like folly, though not for the young artists. And for those who watched them, this Turn of the Screw was another disturbing trick of the light on an endlessly fascinating pool, another transgressive kiss.
Aldeburgh Music, Kings Place, London (020-7520 1490), 11-14 Nov
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