The Turn of the Screw
Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, October 2, 2010
The last time I encountered the work of the South African-born director Alessandro Talevi and the set and costume designer Madeleine Boyd was at last summer's Buxton Festival in Cornelius's The Barber of Baghdad, generally regarded as instantly forgettable-but not, let me make clear, as a production. Now teamed up with the lighting designer Matthew Haskins, the pair makes its Opera North debut in Britten's masterly adaptation of Henry James's creepy ghost story, surprisingly the first time this company has staged it. I have seen many Screw productions since the first in 1954, and Talevi's is unchallengeably the most disturbing, alarming, spooky and explicit of them all. Thanks to the conducting of Opera North's music director Richard Farnes, it is also of the highest musical distinction, every role sung superbly and the playing by the select group of instrumentalists virtuosic and atmospheric in the extreme.
It is often said-and largely true-that The Turn of the Screw is immune to bad or silly productions. A lot depends on venue. First staged at La Fenice, the work doesn't take full effect at somewhere such as Covent Garden, and is better suited to smaller theatres such as the Leeds Grand. Among the memorable performances in my experience are those at the unconventional Glasgow Tramway and Wilton's Music Hall.
Ambiguity is the keynote of the story. Myfanwy Piper's incomparable libretto provides words for the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, whereas in James's story they are mute. Do they ‘exist' or are they figments of the Governess's sexually repressed and over-stimulated imagination? Most productions leave the issue unresolved, but Talevi goes nearer than most to putting the Governess in the dock. Even so, the jury is still out.
Talevi and his collaborators create a claustrophobic and enigmatic atmosphere by an inspired use of a set which is a cluttered landscape of nightmare-images from the story-the schoolroom desk, the bed, the church steeple, the tower where the Governess sees Quint, Flora's dolls, a rocking-horse, and mysterious shadows. Talevi draws on Victorian melodrama, Grand Guignol and Freudian analysis to stir into his rich mix. What do the children and the ghosts get up to? Most producers leave the answer to our imaginations, but not Talevi. When Flora plays with her puppets of Quint and Miss Jessel, she makes them copulate. Miles hints to the Governess that she should get into bed with him, and the games he plays with Flora go beyond nursery rhymes. Miles and Flora dress up as Quint and Miss Jessel. But it is a mistake to change Miles's precocious playing of a mock-Mozart piano concerto into a tepid dance.
None of this would be as enthralling and chilling if the cast had not been totally absorbed in it and performed it marvellously. Elizabeth Atherton's Governess was a brilliant display of on-the brink neurosis, sung with versatile expressiveness and purity of tone. Benjamin Hulett's Quint was a subtle study in evil and his delivery of the Prologue was admirably clear. Giselle Allen as the pregnant Miss Jessel provided another of her deeply studied portraits of wronged women, an effective foil to Yvonne Howard's troubled Mrs Grose. As Miles and Flora, the 13-year-old James Micklethwaite and Fflur Wyn were the linchpins in this sensational triumph for Opera North.