Henry James' gothic classic, The Turn of the Screw, is a paragon of the genre, and Britten's interpretation fully explores the role of fear within music. Although aided by a libretto and dramatic action, his music is still genuinely frightening. The use of nursery rhymes with jarring accompaniments and childish innocence juxtaposed with often complex and difficult tonality creates a climate of fear punctuated with maddening shocks.
Faded Ink's production of the opera is a very able, traditional interpretation. The SJE is a fantastic performance space, but is usually suited to formal recitals that involve no staging. Creating a traditional or expansive set for this opera would be impossible, so instead a sparse setting of white boxes provided a richly blank canvas for different scenes. The space of the church was used fantastically: the chancel was pitched into darkness from which the ghosts sang, appearing mysteriously at the windows of the rood screen before entering onto the main stage. Quint and Jessel's early appearances took place behind the audience, creating the illusion of apparition and a lack of belief in the Governess' conviction. The excellent acoustics of the church allowed the singers' voices to radiate beautifully, and Britten's sparse but elegant instrumental scoring to sing through. The gothic edifice of the interior beautifully evoked Bly and was the perfect setting for the chilling opera.
For me, the music won out over the drama by a long way. The singers had clearly been chosen to complement each other perfectly, a fact that shone through in the tight overlapping textures of the ensemble sections. Guy Withers, as Quint, showed fantastic skill, although perhaps occasionally touching the edge of his ability, and is developing into a star. Sonia Jacobson, as the Governess, displayed flair and astounding diction, essential in an opera sung in English; her versatility and depth of expression really won through. Both Rose Rands (Miss Jessel) and Alex Lloyd (Mrs Grose) completed the ensemble with well-defined characters and shining ability. Special mention must go to both children, Emily Coatsworth and Danny Wymbs, who almost outshone their older counterparts. Coatsworth has a surprisingly flexible and powerful voice that will, perhaps, develop into something fantastic. Britten often used boy trebles, for their greenness and piercing clarity, and Wymbs filled this need incredibly well. His solos, both the Latin recitation and the 'Malo' song, were hauntingly pure and incredibly creepy. The chamber orchestra was made up of young musicians of very high calibre, creating well-balanced textures and wildly varying timbres. Accompanying an opera in such a small ensemble necessitates a lot of exposed playing, but the overall blend was very sweetly pitched.
While the musical performances were fantastic, and very well blended, I felt that the relationships between the characters were not fully explored. The misery of Quint and Jessel's eternal yearning should be manifested in their duet - the ghosts are not so obviously evil and misguiding, but desperate to be reacquainted with the children's innocence, and each other - but it was replaced by an awkward face-off in which only anger was brought out of the scene as the pair bickered pedantically. However, Rands and Jacobson's duet in the schoolroom really hit the mark: their voices were matched so well that the battle of wills between Jessel and the Governess, musically represented as a vocal duel, was intensely dramatic.
Unfortunately, there were also some quite jarring directorial errors. In particular, following the church scene - in which the Governess reaches her lowest, most terrified point - the 'screw' theme is twisted into its most dark and forceful variation. The audience should be imbued with the stark fear of the lone teacher and be caught up in the whirling nightmare she is falling into. It was during this interlude that the director chose to set up the next scene by using Mrs Grose to arrange the props on the stage. The extreme juxtaposition of the terrible music and the homely bustling of the housekeeper was comical, destroying one of the show's most poignant climaxes. It was a real shame that odd moments like this popped up because they offset the fantastic majority.
The final scene rectified all issues: without risking any spoilers, the abject sorrow of all the characters, coupled with the dying and unfulfilling final notes of the score and the slow fade to darkness left the room silent, only broken after a long while by premature applause. It is very rare for an audience to have been so attentive, so captivated and enraptured by a performance, to allow themselves to wait after the final notes have ended. Sustaining the final outcry of the opera creates a ripe, heavy, terrible and indulgent miasma through which the look on the Governess' stricken face pierces. It requires a good audience, but more essentially a stunning performance to achieve such a silence and was a joy to experience.
As we near Halloween, there are plenty of events promising scares, but Faded Inks' production of The Turn of the Screw is supremely chilling, sublimely performed and genuinely frightening.