3 September 2011

Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne

When I first saw the programme for the Glyndebourne Festival 2011 I was disappointed at the number of revivals of recent operas that I had already seen. Far from disappointing was the return of The Turn of Screw that I last saw, and loved, in 2007.

The opera tells the story of a governess and the two children she is hired to look after by a mysterious guardian who we never see and whom the governess is instructed not to contact.

She approaches the grand house in the country with some nervousness but this is soon dispelled when she meets the children, Miles and Flora, and the housekeeper.

This happy mood does not last long.

A letter arrives from Miles' school saying that he has been expelled for doing something very bad. The governess and housekeeper find this hard to believe it.

Then the governess sees a figure in the tower and later outside. When she describes the man to the housekeeper we are told that this is Peter Quint, a former valet at the house. Quint had had asexual relationship with Miss Jessel, the previous governess. Miss Jessel; went away and then died. Quint dies too soon later.

The housekeeper also suggests that Quint and Jessel had an unusual and unnatural relationship with the two children.

And so the mystery and the tragedy start to unfold.

The opera thrives on the menace in the story that is conveyed passionately by the typically quirky Benjamin Britten music delivered expertly by the London Philharmonic Orchestra slimed down to chamber orchestra size.

The singing was sublime throughout and could be heard loudly and clearly even in the cheap seats (£75) in the Upper Circle. All four of the main roles were superb though if forced to pick one it would be Susan Bickley as Mrs Grose the housekeeper.

I loved the staging as much for what it did not do as much as for what it did. There were a couple of nice touches, like the moving train effect at the beginning, but mostly the set did very little and let the actors and musicians tell the story with their actions, words and music.

Glyndebourne seems to favour the fancier productions these days, e.g. the elaborate and complex sets used in Fairy Queen, Hansel and Gretel, Don Giovanni and Rusalka (possibly driven by the increasing use of ex-theatre directors), but I much prefer the simpler sets that do not distract attention away from the music.

The Turn of the Screw was dramatic, melodic and immensely satisfying. This is exactly the sort of thing that I go to Glyndebourne to see.

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