The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Britten, libretto by Myfanwy Piper
English National Opera
The Coliseum
(2007)

Production photo

English National Opera has been going through a bad patch - to put it mildly. So it is good to be able to record a success at the Coliseum, even if David McVicar's production of Benjamin Britten's chamber opera was in fact premiered in the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg.

A young Victorian governess tries to protect her orphaned charges from a horror she cannot either understand or explain. For those who like a good ghost story Henry James's novella, published in 1898, is one of the very best. Chilling and elusive, it has subtle psychological depths.

Peter Quint, a former valet, and Miss Jessel, a former governess, return from the dead, to haunt the house in which they were once employed. They frighten the life out of the governess, who senses their evil and desperately wants to save the two young children, Miles and Flora.

Prudery and lust have always made for a lethal combination. Oscar Wilde in a letter to Robert Ross in 1899 said The Turn of the Screw was "the most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale, like an Elizabethan tragedy."

All his life Henry James wanted to be a successful playwright. When he finally had a play staged - Guy Domville at St James's Theatre in 1895 - it flopped badly and theatre manager and actor George Alexander had to find a play double-quick to replace it. He asked Oscar Wilde to let him have The Importance of Being Earnest which he had originally rejected.

The irony is that after his death Henry James's novels and short stories have been regularly turned into highly successful plays, films and operas. The Turn of the Screw was successfully staged in 1950 in an adaptation by William Archibald called The Innocents. Flora Robson played the governess. Jeremy Spenser and Carol Wolveridge played the children. Archibald's adaptation was made into an excellent film directed by John Clayton with brilliant camerawork by Freddie Francis. Deborah Kerr was the governess. Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin were the children. The scenario was by Truman Capote and John Mortimer.

Michael Winner also made a film version called The Nightcomers. This was a prequel and it over-simplified and over-sensationalised the original story. Marlon Brando played the valet and Stephanie Beacham played the children's first governess. The enigmatic and fastidious Henry James is infinitely preferable to the explicit and vulgar Michael Winner.

Benjamin Britten's opera with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper was premiered in 1954 in Venice and then transferred to Sadler's Wells. David Hemmings (later to become a film star) played Miles. The subject matter - the corruption of beautiful and innocent under-aged children - is very characteristic of Britten's oeuvre, which includes Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice. But is the paedophilic horror for real? Or is it merely in the mind of a frustrated and infatuated young governess who lets her erotic fantasies get the better of her?

Ever since Henry James said The Turn of the Screw was a trap for the unwary, Freudians and anti-Freudians have had a great time. Britten's version is intellectually and musically satisfying - even in the Coliseum, a theatre which is far too big for a chamber opera. The essential claustrophobia has to be created by enveloping the stage in darkness.

There are first-rate performances by Rebecca Evans as the governess, Timothy Robinson as Quint, Cheryl Baker as Jessel and Ann Murray as the housekeeper. The performance by 14-year-old George Longworth as the sexually-knowing Miles is something special. Longworth is a remarkably confident for so young a singer and actor. "I'm bad," he announces, giving the governess a full kiss on the lips. Miles was expelled from school. It is not difficult to guess what he was expelled for. Flora is played by Nazan Fikret as a freakish cartoon naughty girl you might find in Heinrich Hoffmann's Shockheaded Peter, especially when she is burying her doll in the ground and thrashing the rocking horse.

Britten's score, brilliant, clever, edgy and spooky - conducted by Garry Walker - turns the screw tighter and tighter and David McVicar's production moves to an impressive climax.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch