MUSIC / Purity torn asunder: Stephen Walsh reviews The Turn of the Screw in Bath

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The Independent Culture
Prominent in Bath and Wessex Opera's self-introduction to the programme book of their current season is the statement that they 'aim to remain faithful to the emotion of the music and to present operas in the setting and with the costumes of the original period'.

Such a manifesto is hard to assess (what is the original period of The Magic Flute? Was there ever a company that didn't aim to remain faithful to the emotion of the music, whatever that might be?). But it seems anyway to have raised few problems for Olivia Fuchs in her staging of The Turn of the Screw, which opened in Bath's Theatre Royal on Sunday. Immaculately true to the Victorian setting, it offsets this with a dramatic robustness apt to Britten's unsentimental, and sometimes dangerously concrete rendering of Henry James's tale.

The first question in The Screw is nearly always: how solid are the ghosts? The stage directions are noncommittal on the subject, but Fuchs makes no bones about giving them flesh and blood and allowing them physical transactions with the living characters: Quint even gives Miles a scarf. As the children cavort with the ghosts, or as Quint and Miss Jessel approach ever nearer to physical contact with the Governess, one begins even to doubt their ghostliness.

Yet, oddly enough, the horror is much enhanced by this materiality. All the time one senses - what's so often left in abeyance, not least by Britten himself - the sexual character of the corruption that is taking place. Not that anything coarse or gratuitous is offered. Fuchs is excellent at mere hints, and it's enough for Miles and Flora to steal incestuous kisses in what's supposed to be a tag game, or for Flora to play the pagan goddess on a gravestone, for the ceremony of innocence to be well and truly drowned.

This direct physicality is, in any case, offset by considerable subtlety of design. Gauzes and mirrors may seem obvious enough devices for phantom imagery in a faintly surreal setting. But I've rarely seen them used to such rich effect as here by David Myerscough-Jones and his lighting designer, Ben Ormerod: economy and richness nicely allied against the solid, factuality of Andrea Carr's costumes, and a hint of neo-gothic somewhere upstage.

Roger Vignoles, conducting his first opera from the podium, does best with the music's incisive imagery, and may need more time to achieve its cumulative force. But this is already a stylish performance. The playing (Bournemouth Sinfonietta) could at times be tidier and more cleanly tuned, and the cast is perhaps too much dominated - in musical terms - by Nigel Robson's menacing, insistent Quint and by Janis Kelly's beautifully poised and inward Governess.

Sarah Pring's rather too gipsyish Miss Jessel suggests a more distinctive vocal portrait than she gets. Enid Hartle's Mrs Grose is likewise too reserved though very exact in style. As for the children, Paula Bishop and Ben Sutcliffe, they perform with musical and dramatic intelligence if not quite enough vocal insinuation. But perhaps that's too much to expect.

Further perfs 12, 14 Aug. Theatre Royal, Bath (0225 448844)