The Turn of the Screw (1954): Benjamin Britten

Britten: Turn of the Screw


(Glyndebourne, 11-28 August 2011)

I have a huge debt of gratitude to repay to my friend who, on being given three tickets for this performance (the original purchaser having fallen ill), asked me to come with her. Glyndebourne is a remarkable experience and, for us, it was a brief glimpse into another, gilded, world.  As evening dress is traditional, it was easy to spot our fellow festival-goers on the 14:47 from Victoria.  Well-heeled couples carried Fortnum & Mason hampers and groups of young men, who might have stepped straight out of Brideshead Revisited, lounged in the aisles toting picnic rugs and bottles of champagne.  At Lewes station we all piled out of the train and onto some waiting coaches and then we rattled through narrow winding streets (it’s a picturesque little town; I’d never been before) to the house itself.

I say advisedly that it’s an experience rather than a mere performance – the opera is the focal point of the evening, but you arrive fully two hours before the opera starts, and there’s a one-and-a-half hour interval.  You can use this leisure time to explore the lovely gardens, and no doubt we would have done if it hadn’t rained during the morning (though we were blessed with sun while we were there).  Besides, some of us (*raises hand*) were wearing inappropriate heels for adventuring.  We’d brought a picnic and headed down to a marquee which had been set up in the garden. There are at least two permanent restaurants, but in a way it’s all part of the fun to picnic.

I don’t know what the others anticipated, but I thought it would be a marquee with a groundsheet and we’d just pick a spot and spread out.  Not so.  The marquee was set with tables and chairs, and a Glyndebourne official wearing a ribbon and medal welcomed us all in.  We swiftly realised that, if we ever come again, we’ll have to up our picnic game.  Neighbouring tables boasted fine cutlery and china, proper wine-glasses, linen tablecloths and in one case candlesticks.  Bread-baskets were passed around beneath the lights of the chandeliers overhead (yes, chandeliers in a marquee).  Champagne corks popped regularly around us.  It was the most glamourous picnic I’ve ever been part of.  We defiantly spread my picnic rug as a tablecloth, poured out our lemonade into paper cups, and tucked in – and it was delicious.

Britten: Turn of the Screw

The Governess (Miah Persson)

As you can see, I was rather ignorant about the whole Glyndebourne experience, and I’d imagined (foolishly) that the performance was going to be outside, in the vein of those National Trust concert evenings where you sit in lovely gardens and it all finishes off with a firework display.  Had I thought about it, I would have realised that the black-tie dress code and the eye-watering price of the tickets made this unlikely.  The opera house is a permanent structure, fully equipped and with very impressive acoustics.  We were fortunate enough to have incredible seats in the stalls, which meant we had a fantastic view.  My heartfelt thanks go out to the donor of these tickets, who made three young women very happy indeed.

The performance itself was wonderful.  I should confess now that I’m not a connoisseur of music or opera, so what you get here are the thoughts of an enthusiastic amateur.  Paul Brown’s set was simple but very clever.  A large wall of windows spun and spiralled, transformed into a conservatory or lake as necessary, and the old bough of a tree represented ‘the outdoors’ and later cast eerie shadows around the set as the boundaries between life and death, outside and inside, began to blur and fade.  The opening scene in the train carriage used film to brilliant effect in showing the countryside rushing past the train windows – it’s such a simple idea but I’d never seen it used like that in a theatrical production before, and it was very effective.

The cast were all excellent, especially the children – 12-year-old Thomas Parfitt as Miles, and Joanna Songi as Flora (her voice was particularly rich and mature and we spent a lot of time debating how old she was).  Miah Persson as the Governess had a pure, beautiful voice although sometimes I had trouble catching her words without the help of the surtitles.  I found the first part unexpectedly scary as far as the ghosts were concerned – partly because Giselle Allen as Miss Jessel looked rather like the child from The Ring, with her drowned hair straggling over her face.  The hairs on the back of my arms stood on end through much of the performance.  By the end of it, even hearing that haunting refrain of ‘Malo, Malo’ made a chill run down my spine, although it was sufficiently catchy that it’s still in my head now.

Britten: Turn of the Screw

Miles (Thomas Parfitt)

I haven’t read the story of The Turn of the Screw for many years, although I think it’s lying around here somewhere and I’ll have to go and rummage for it later.  I can’t remember what the explanation is, in the original, for the children’s connection to Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.  But in Britten’s take on the story, the emphasis seems to be placed quite heavily on Peter Quint’s abuse of Miles – an interpretation which was supported by some of the choreography, especially in the bathroom scene.  It would be interesting to find out whether this emphasis was Britten’s, or this particular production’s – in a TV adaptation of The Turn of the Screw a year or so ago, I didn’t pick up the abuse angle at all.  Adding to the complex psychological mix, the Governess has fallen for the children’s absent guardian and longs to prove herself to him, and the children themselves are on the cusp of adolescence.  Credit has to go to Thomas Parfitt again for treading a perfect line between childish innocence and adult knowledge.

As an experience, it was utterly splendid and I had a wonderful time.  But even now I confess that I haven’t been won over to Britten as a composer.  Musical pleb that I am, I’d prefer a bit of Mozart or Handel any time.  However, I can fully appreciate that The Turn of the Screw is one of those matches made in heaven, where the subject and composer seem destined for one another.  Surely few composers could conjure up the impression of lurking evil or degenerating sanity quite as effectively as Britten: the dissonance of his style kept your ears on edge, especially in the second half where eerily jarring notes helped to heighten the atmosphere.  For me, it was much more successful as a whole than the only other opera I’ve seen by Britten – his Death in Venice at the ENO.  In the latter case, while the production was visually arresting, I felt the music wasn’t right for the subject, which (to me) needed something more languid and lyrical.  But maybe that’s just because Death in Venice doesn’t feel right to me without Mahler’s 5th.  No such qualms with The Turn of the Screw, though.

A thoroughly fantastic evening in all possible ways (if the weather had been blissfully balmy then that would simply have made it even more perfect).  This kind of festival is much more up my street than sloshing around in the mud at Reading… Now I have to start counting my pennies so that I can afford to go back – maybe a standing place up in the gods would be within my reach next year?!

Buy the film

Britten: Turn of the Screw

Miles (Thomas Parfitt) and the Governess (Miah Persson)

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