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BENJAMIN BRITTEN The Turn of the Screw
A chamber opera in two acts
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the novel by Henry James

Cologne Opera at the Schwetzinger Festspiele 1990
Governess: Helen Field
Mrs Grose: Menai Davies
Quint/Prologue: Richard Greager
Miss Jessel: Phyllis Cannan
Flora: Machiko Obata
Miles: Samuel Linay

Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart conducted by Steuart Bedford
Stage director: Michael Hampe Directed for Video and Television by Claus Viller

Arthaus DVD 100 198 [4:3 114 mins]

This is one of my favourite operas, which I have followed around since its original production. Britten's own historic 1955 recording of The Turn of the Screw with Peter Pears & Jennifer Vyvyan is available on Decca CD 425 672-2LH2 and all the tracks can be sampled; a bench-mark before considering this DVD.

One cannot feed on memory alone and this is a sound account under the secure direction of the most experienced of the composer's collaborators who became Director of the Aldeburgh Festival. The Variations (interludes between the short scenes) allow us to observe Bedford conducting the small ensemble which produces a miraculous range of timbres and a dynamic range which leaves no regret that there is no full orchestra, but perhaps they are served better by brief contemplation without visual distraction?
The costumes and sets are effective; economical and fairly traditional, with drained out colour, predominantly greys and blues.

Helen Field assumed the governess's part without quite 'becoming' her; Menai Davies was too forthright and sings too loud for the home audience. Samuel Linay judges the key role of Miles to perfection and his conflicts become central in this version. I was unable to take the ghosts so seriously as one must. Camera movements are restless, moving in for close-ups to catch every expression, for me somehow destroying a sense of mystery and foreboding. The mounting tensions in Act Two are however well conveyed and other viewers may become more absorbed and able to identify with the protagonists than I found myself.

Perhaps The Turn of the Screw needs to be seen with the imagination one brings to the theatre or to listening at home. On TV as filmed at Schwetzinger it is somehow too literal; the appearances and disappearances of the ghosts redolent of familiar fade techniques, debased by regular overuse. The Arthaus notes are limited and the Introduction to the Opera perfunctory; just a summary of the story with stills from the film. Subtitles are included in English as well as other usual languages; this is helpful for some passages when different thoughts are being sung simultaneously. For those who don't know The Turn of the Screw, this DVD may prove a good first encounter with a key opera of the mid-1900s.

My most enduring more recent experiences of The Turn of the Screw were at two productions by Broomhill Opera, which is currently enjoying a fruitful association with singers from South Africa. At two of their homes they mounted different but totally persuasive productions, the latter at Wilton's Music Hall, which is ideal for 'opera of the imagination'; see my fully illustrated report which gives an impression of what can be done with no scenery at all, just imaginative exploitation of the venue itself - I hope Broomhill Opera will return to the more regular opera repertory, as over the years they have shown a real penchant for economical productions which stretch their audiences. Benjamin Britten's operas respond to a non-realistic approach, as found last month with Albert Herring in Zurich.

© Peter Grahame Woolf