Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw (Brussels, 2021)
La Monnaie-De Munt, 2021
Ben Glassberg, Andrea Breth, Ed Lyon, Sally Matthews, Henri de Beauffort, Katharina Bierweiler, Carole Wilson, Julian Hubbard, Giselle Allen
La Monnaie Streaming/Opera Vision, April 2021
Britten's chamber opera The Turn of the Screw perfectly captures the mood and character of the chillingly sinister original Henry James story, but just as importantly it captures much of the psychological mystery and ambiguity within the ghostly tale. A director can enhance or emphasise certain elements of that ambiguity, but it shouldn't reveal too much. Britten's perfect score and the wonderful writing for the voice are more than enough to bring out the deeper character and suggestion that lies within it.
Andrea Breth does that quite well in the 2021 La Monnaie production, placing the emphasis more on the expression of the horror deriving from the inner delusions of the impressionable governess, but it's not without suggesting that there is indeed something to her fears. The opera certainly hints at dark events, at the loss of childhood innocence and the corrupting influence of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and the harmful legacy they have left over the children.
The first thing that strikes you in the opening scene of this production - as it perhaps should more than any obvious input or emphasis of the director - is the effect of the music and the mood it creates right from the outset. That has as much to do with Britten's score as with the meticulous performance of the La Monnaie orchestra under Ben Glassberg and by the singing of Sally Matthews as the Governess and Ed Lyon as the narrator. Both demonstrate a gorgeous tone with beautiful enunciation, but also delivering the content of the libretto with suggestion of the horror to unfold.
In setting, lighting and colouration, it's doesn't vary too much from convention and expectations, looking very much like every production of The Turn of the Screw looks. Dark, monochrome and austere, with cool lighting and plenty of shadow, but here director Andrea Breth allows several other spectral figures to appear on the stage. Even in the opening scene, Miss Jessel and a particularly demented looking Peter Quint already make an appearance, moving in and even taking over some of the narrator and the Governess's vocal lines, their influence over the whole tone of the work and what goes on in Bly already made evident.
It's also evident that Breth intends to extend that mood out and make visible some of the more hidden and suggestive undercurrents. Rather like the 2012-2016 Northern Ireland Opera production - back when we were fortunate to have an adventurous and ambitious artistic director of opera in Oliver Mears - this production uses panels, sliding doors and hidden rooms to open up the dark recesses of Bly or the Governess - take your pick: it's open for interpretation who is driving the psychosis that is rapidly escalating, or tightening like the turn of a screw.
It comes from a place "where things unspoken of can be', and Raimund Orfeo Voigt's sets shows the unspoken lying in wait everywhere to entrap. You can never remove the undercurrents of sexual repression of the Governess running up against the suggestion of sexual abuse of the children or some dark influence that they have been subjected to at the hands of Quint and Jessel, there is less of that made explicit in this production of the work. It's certainly hinted at, but if the emphasis in this production is principally within the mind of Governess, we can see that she doesn't have sufficient knowledge of such evil to imagine it playing out.
In some ways I even wonder if there is an angle there to be explored in The Turn of the Screw, and whether it is also important to retain adherence to the period in order to bring it out. There does seem to be a generational conflict in the changing times and attitudes, the older generation fearing the new, seeing it as decadent and corrupt, overturning traditional values. The Governess seems to be in-between, not comfortable with the past or the present, fearing for what lies ahead for the future generation. The loss of innocence that may already have happened and she feels powerless to intervene, or it may indeed be her misguided attempts at over-protectiveness that result in the tragic conclusion.
On a more general note, one of the policies I like about La Monnaie - aside from their adventurous programming and choice of directors - is how they retain a few strong performers on their books who are versatile and supremely capable in a number of varied roles and styles. Sally Matthews is just superb here as Governess, firm of voice, secure in range, but also capable of bringing real urgency and personality to a fairly complex character. Andrea Breth also fulfills perfectly the La Monnaie policy of modernising with purpose when it is appropriate to do so. Although this looks period in costume and set design - there are no mobile phones here - it uses modern techniques to extend the themes beyond the period, breaking down walls - quite literally - to work more closely with the music, not just the dramatic content of the libretto.
Musically too, the production is of an exceptionally high standard, as beautiful an account of this Britten work as you could hope for. Evidence of the quality of the performance is clear from the superb sound mixing that La Monnaie have captured for this streamed live recording. Every instrument can be heard, every little detail that adds to the character of the work, the voices rising clear above the orchestration with a natural theatrical sounding resonance. Aside from the already mentioned Ed Lyon and Sally Matthews then there is much to enjoy in the singing of Julian Hubbard as Quint and Giselle Allen - the quintessential Miss Jessel. Carole Wilson likewise is a fine Mrs Grose and there are good performances Henri de Beauffort and Katharina Bierweiler as Miles and Flora.
Links: La Monnaie-De Munt