For its first ever staging of Britten's chilling thriller The Turn of the Screw, Opera North has engaged a young director unafraid of piling on ghostly layers. As if Henry James's novella wasn't suggestive enough of sexual ambiguity and a sense of innocence corrupted, Alessandro Talevi freely adds his own often tangential ideas. The Governess's fevered imagination, and the stage too, is peopled with cavorting, wraith-like apparitions and fantastic tableaux often at odds with both plot and score. Instead of enhancing the visual and dramatic frisson between the haunters and the haunted they distract from the opera's musical and theatrical tensions, blurring the definition between the original 16 skilfully demarcated scenes.
The Governess's journey to the country house of Bly, a peculiarly static yet bumpy carriage ride for a sinister, full-size puppet, ends with her arrival in an oppressive single-room set dominated by a four-poster bed. With its skewed angles and painterly allusions, Madeleine Boyd's shadowy interior exerts a claustrophobic hold as figures emerge from and shrink back into the gloom. Miles and Flora, the Governess's two orphaned charges, bow and curtsey charmingly but it soon becomes clear that "they are with others". The previous governess Miss Jessel (an unsettling portrayal by Giselle Allen), still as pregnant as she was the day she died, and former valet Peter Quint (a slippery-voiced Benjamin Hulett) inhabit the Governess's mind as vividly as they continue to exert their evil influence on the lives of young Flora and Miles.
Birdsong trills enticingly from the garden we never see, the lake is reduced to a small panel unfurled by Flora and inhabited by puppets, the piano scene is altered drastically so that, instead of attracting adulatory comments for his virtuosic playing of pastiche Mozart, Miles dances like a dervish to a gramophone record.
Musically, the evening is arresting. Richard Farnes draws exquisitely detailed playing from the 13-piece ensemble. Expressive insight characterises Elizabeth Atherton's distraught Governess, well supported by Yvonne Howard's supple Mrs Grose, while Fflur Wyn and James Micklethwaite, singing like angels, are disturbingly convincing as the innocents corrupted.
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