Sixty years on and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn Of The Screw, based on Henry James’s “eerie and scary” ghost novella, is still as taut and dramatically intriguing as ever.
The ambiguities and questions still remain for many: Does the Governess actually witness the spirits of sexual predator Peter Quint and his equally possessive offsider Miss Jessel working their evil on her two young charges Miles and Flora or is it all her own deranged fantasy?
Whatever you decide – or even if you want to decide – the plot is as powerful as ever, aided by Britten’s sparse and evocative orchestration and Myfanwy Piper’s concise, erotically charged libretto. The use of 16 variations on a theme, which with its rising and falling tonal patterns resembles a threaded screw is a master-stroke. It drives the action along without pause through the prologue and two acts and you don’t need to watch this ever-tightening drama to be snared, as the London Symphony Orchestra’s new two-disc set on its LSO Live label eloquently attests. Recorded at the Barbican last year, conductor Richard Farnes, his 17 musicians and an exceptional cast never let the tension lag throughout the two hours.
English tenor Andrew Kennedy insinuates his presence into the proceedings with a sweet and seductive tone that the young boy Miles – and the audience – finds impossible to resist. Soprano Sally Matthews, a Kathleen Ferrier Award winner a few years ago, is perfect as the Governess and demonstrates why she is now one of Britain’s most in-demand singers. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a familiar face at the Proms as well as opera houses throughout the United Kingdom, triumphs as the housekeeper Mrs Grose who never let on about her suspicions about Quint and Miss Jessel because “it wasn’t my place.”
Britten created the part of Miles for the then child actor the late David Hemmings who said in a BBC documentary that playing the final scene when the boy dies in the arms of the Governess was the most extraordinary moment of his career. The audience sat in silence for minutes before Venice’s La Fenice opera house erupted in applause. There’s a sense of that with this recording which features an excellent Miles in St James’s Palace chorister Michael Clayton-Jolly. The Governess’s despairing question: “What have we done between us?” is, of course, unanswerable. At a climactic moment Quint and Miss Jessel sing the line from WB Yeats, “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. That much we do know.