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‘The Turn of the Screw’ review

  • Music, Classical and opera
  • 3 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Benjamin Britten's haunting Henry James adaptation gets an atmospheric but not especially scary open air outing

Staged at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the ENO’s outdoor production of Benjamin Britten’s haunting opera ‘The Turn of the Screw’ has an air of desolation to it.

A rusting hulk of a summerhouse perches among long grass, looking less like a stage, more like a bit of the park everyone forgot about. The air of decay that surrounds it is a product of its abandonment by the story’s absent male authority figure, who’s left two orphaned children to the mercy of a motley assortment of employees.

Anita Watson’s nuanced, compellingly varied vocal performance as these kids’ new governess captures every apprehension as she meets them, and every moment of rapturous obsession with her absent employer, undercut by the drier syllables of the elderly housekeeper Mrs Gross (Janis Kelly). This is an opera where lines cycle and run over each other, and their voices blend beautifully, both with each other and with an orchestra that’s hidden from view. Still, if this production sounds spine-chilling, its staging is lethally short on menacing atmosphere.

Director Timothy Sheader makes the two white-clad children, Flora and Miles, engage in a series of creepy-by-numbers antics: they menace each other with worms or cavort about in animal masks. But these campy scenes undermine the fact that these kids are meant to be a borderline saintly comfort to their increasingly uneasy governess. The real menace should come from the opera’s ghosts: the last governess, and Peter Quint, the house’s former valet. Alas, decked out in tattered Victoriana and unconvincing wigs, this spectral pair look too much like ‘Les Miserables’ chorus members to be properly chilling. They’re scariest when you can’t quite see them, as in the moments where Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s haunting Quint calls to Miles reverberate from the trees beyond the stage.

‘The Turn of the Screw’, like Britten’s still more evocative opera ‘Peter Grimes’, has the half-hidden threat of paedophilia hanging over it. Miles is drawn to Peter Quint by something both supernatural and internal, something he can’t quite fight. When Daniel Alexander Sidhom sings ‘Malo’, a haunting, sensual melody that simmers up to interrupt a prosaic Latin lesson, he’s like a boy possessed. But it’s hard to feel the psychological intensity of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, tangled with ideas of secrecy and drowned innocence, when Quint is striding through the audience in broad daylight, solid and firmly unthreatening.

There’s so much about Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre that makes it a memorable, atmospheric venue for opera. Here, the rustle of the trees and distant birdsong both do their best to contribute some unearthly atmosphere, and when it eventually gets dark, the performance feels immeasurably creepier. All it needs is a production that can match the unsettling power of Britten’s music.

Written by
Alice Saville

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