Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw is a chamber opera, requiring just six singers and an orchestra of 13. A small, intimate performance of it can have a claustrophobic creepiness all its own. But this State Opera South Australia production, presented on the cavernous Adelaide Festival Theatre stage, made it feel like there were larger, darker forces at play than mere human characters. If this is a story about lost innocence, in this telling the innocence never had a chance.

State Opera South Australia

Rachelle Durkin, Eliza Brill Reed, Elizabeth Campbell and Fiona McArdle in The Turn of the Screw. Photo © Soda Street Productions

“A manor with evil in its walls, or a governess with evil in her mind?” the advertisements had asked us. This ambiguity is part of the allure of Henry James’ famous novella, in which a governess is sent to a country manor to care for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, and begins to suspect that they are possessed. The ghosts of Peter Quint, an old valet, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, become mysteriously connected with the two children – at least in the mind of the governess. But what is real, and what is imagined? Britten’s opera makes it all real for the audience.

On entering the auditorium, one soon became aware of the shadowy gothic interior of Bly House revealed on the darkened stage, dominated by four towers of disturbingly oversized wood panelling. Shafts of light angled down from way up high, illuminating nothing but an ever-present haze. The manor became a character in its own right, and the most dominant one at that, its dark wall blocks and huge back window dwarfing the onstage characters and closing in menacingly between scenes.

Roger Kirk’s set design was magnificent, and so was the lighting by Trudy Dalgleish, enabling the two ghosts to fade in and out of the shadowy void surrounding the stage. Apart from Peter Quint at his first appearance, the cast were never elevated, and so felt increasingly vulnerable in the vast space, dark emptiness on all sides. Even the minimal furniture – writing desk, piano, Miles’ bed – felt tiny. The story is set in rural Essex, yet the only signs of the natural world were a suspended bare tree branch and a lake of dead water that slid itself into and out of place like a ghostly shroud. Even the daylight scenes were never lit by anything more than a wintry twilight.

Kanen Breen gave a chilling performance as an unequivocally sinister Peter Quint. There was a subtle yet keen edge to his voice, and he strode around the stage with a commanding presence. The hints of Quint’s predator status were made uncomfortably clear, heightened by the ‘sad clown’ effect of his thick red hair and darkened eyes. Written down like this, it sounds altogether too much, but Breen carried it off superbly. Quint’s ghostly accomplice, Miss Jessel, was sung by Fiona McArdle with a similarly magisterial tone, only soft rather than hard around the edges.

State Opera South Australia

Kanen Breen in The Turn of the Screw. Photo © Soda Street Productions.

Rachelle Durkin sang the Governess superbly, her clarity of tone and diction making surtitles unnecessary for a while. But the natural confidence and charisma she brought to the role felt at odds with the character she played: a young woman out of her depth, torn between the desire to please and fear of the supernatural. This may have been an attempt to avoid the Victorian ‘hysterical woman’ stereotype, but this approach must also find a way to maintain the true horror of the Governess’ loss of innocence.

The deeper tone of Elizabeth Campbell was perfect for Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, a down-to-earth voice of reason.

The two children, Miles and Flora, were sung with great musicality by Max Junge and Eliza Brill Reed, both aged 12. Junge’s rendition of the eerie ‘Malo’ song in the first act left a lasting impression (as the story requires), his rich, burnished tone cutting through the orchestral accompaniment like an instrument from another world.

The 13-piece ensemble, consisting of principals from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, was enthusiastically conducted by Paul Kildea. Yet their sound had the immediacy of chamber music, with tightly felt rhythms, but also room to breathe. Highlights included the incredibly expressive timpani playing of Andrew Penrose, and the dry, creepy sound that Mark Gaydon got from his bassoon.

The stage direction left me in two minds. Director Stuart Maunder is clearly not afraid of empty space or slowness, but it needs absolute commitment to work, and the blocking sometimes felt a trifle stilted and hesitant between sections. However, several times the near stasis proved frighteningly perfect, such as Miles’ chilling stare at the Governess to close Act One. 

Britten’s opera presents the children not as real children, but as adult imaginings of children – mysterious and elusive in their innocence, if innocent they are. It seems that none of the adult characters (ghosts included) really know them, what they actually want or need. In this production, Flora and Miles appeared not as puppets of the ghosts who supposedly possess them, but as automata, strange and inscrutable. Which marked out the climactic ending as particularly poignant: Miles’ last act (which I won’t spoil) could be described as bringing him, at last, to life.

State Opera South Australia’s The Turn of the Screw runs until 6 May at Adelaide Festival Centre.

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