Britten – The Turn of the Screw
Prologue – Ed Lyon
Governess – Sally Matthews
Miles – Henri de Beauffort
Flora – Katharina Bierweiler
Mrs Grose – Carole Wilson
Miss Jessel – Giselle Allen
Peter Quint – Julian Hubbard
Kamerorkest van de Munt / Ben Glassberg.
Stage director – Andrea Breth. Video director – Myriam Hoyer.
La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium. Thursday, April 29th, 2021. Streamed via De Munt – La Monnaie’s website.
There were hopes that this new production of The Turn of the Screw at De Munt – La Monnaie could be performed in front of an audience. Alas, with the current federal sanitary regulations in place in Belgium, this was not to be. After a year of watching streamed operas, it must be said this staging, by Andrea Breth, works exceptionally well on the small screen, especially thanks to Myriam Hoyer’s impressively fluent camera work that really manages to transform amplify the impact of Breth’s staging and of Britten’s music.
Breth sets the work in a 1950s film noir setting. Bly is a house occupied by shadowy figures – are they ghosts of those who came before, previous Governesses who were scared off? Other valets who may have not lasted the course? Within this world, nothing is what it seems – whether for the Governess or for the children. The set (Raimund Orfeo Voigt) offers constantly changing vistas, yet at the same time never seems to move, making Bly seem both like a physical as well as a mental labyrinth. It’s hard to know what is real and what is in fact imagined, which makes Breth’s staging even more haunting. Characters seem to appear when a closet door opens, as if hidden within, or as a head through a hole in the wall. The presence of the faceless figures reinforces this sense of claustrophobic loneliness, of the cause of an imminent yet unexplainable tragedy.
Breth’s is also a staging that is firmly based in both the music and the development of its characters. This is a piece that has music as one of its central elements – whether the children singing a psalm, or the distraction of Miles’ piano playing and the related tragic outcome. One of the closets opens to reveal the cello soloist within, as if making the music we hear part of the house as well. Hoyer’s camera work also uses the interludes, rather than giving us picturesque shots of the orchestral players, instead illustrates the instruments as being related to the action as much as what happens on stage. Similarly, Breth brings home the disintegration of the Governess’s mental state, through her detailed direction of Sally Matthews who frantically covers Katharina Bierweiler’s Flora with earth, as if burying her, leading us to wonder whether the Governess was as complicit in the tragedy as anyone else.
Matthews gives an honest performance of the role of the Governess. It has to be admitted that her diction isn’t the clearest, leading me to need to frequently refer to the subtitles. She sings with generosity and attempts to shade the tone higher up in the voice, although her tuning does have a tendency to succumb to the forces of gravity up there, and emission isn’t always even. Matthews certainly gives much of herself through her fearless physicality. Dramatically, she is exceptionally convincing in her concern and mounting horror as the reality of the situation becomes apparent. As her predecessor, Giselle Allen also sings Miss Jessel with confidence in a brassy, penetrating soprano, one that cuts through the musical texture with unflinching force. Carole Wilson was a concerned presence as Mrs Grose, also confidently negotiating the challenging tessitura, the text always clear.
Ed Lyon opened the evening as the Prologue and made his mark through his impeccable clarity of text. Julian Hubbard coped well with the melismatic nature of Quint’s writing, his tenor focused in tone, legato decent, and also sung off the text. The two children had been exceptionally prepared, both musically and dramatically, and both sang in commendably crisp English.
Ben Glassberg led members of the house orchestra in a reading that also matched the fluency of the stage and video direction. He was unafraid to revel in the dissonances, but also brought out that constantly changing rhythmic interplay in the ensemble texture. He brought out such a wealth of instrumental colour. The quality of the playing was absolutely exceptional, yet again confirming the excellence of this house.
This Turn of the Screw is notable for a penetrating and intelligent staging, one that brings the work to life, and disturbs the viewer so that one leaves with that unsettled sense of nothing being quite what it seems. That it had also been so well captured for the small screen, only serves to heighten its impact. It was honestly sung throughout. While it might not have been bel canto for much of the cast in terms of vocalism, it was sung with such disarming commitment that, combined with the staging and video direction, one could not help but be drawn in. Very well conducted and superbly played, this is worth a view for admirers of Britten’s music.