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Fiona Halliday reviews 'The Turn of the Screw'

The list of supernatural operas – ‘The Flying Duchtman’, ‘Der Vamypyre’ ‘Der Freischutz’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ - make the Saw movies look about as exciting as slipping into a coma.

I was at the ENO to see The Turn of the Screw. It premiered in 1954 under the sure hand of Charles Mackerras, who returned to the helm in this, David McVicar’s restrained and suspenseful interpretation of the tale of a hysterical governess, 2 creepy children and their demonic undead doppelgangers. ‘We wouldn’t get that at the State Opera’ said a Viennese friend of mine disapprovingly when I outlined the plot.

Okay, the libretto staggered as much as the Frankenstenianly shambling Mr Quint (an astonishingly sweet-voiced Michael Colvin) in Act One, but it pulled itself together by the second in a tale of genuine suspenseful creepiness. And god, any pen that turns the porridge of Henry James prose into something that twangs the knicker elastic of suspense must be applauded. And given the wealth of possible paedophilic and children-as-demon undertones, I had wondered whether the ENO might resort to setting it in Josef Fritzl’s cellar. I thought Miss Jessel (Cheryl Barker) might announce her presence by climbing out of a television set in the children’s nursery or Quint might appear dressed as an undead Gary Glitter. Glad to report folks, it was a masterpiece of restraint. Somewhere up there, the ENO’s tortured guardian angel, Benjamin Britten heaved a sigh of relief. It was, almost, spell-binding.

The prevalence of beds and nighties in Tanya McCallin's set made one imagine the haunted country mansion, Bly, as a lunatic asylum or a hospital. The shifting ivy covered windows ratcheted up the claustrophobia and gay Phoebus was not a friend in this house. Adam Silverman's use of lighting was straight from an old Master painting, cold and dark occasionally warming to sepia and a cortege of silent maids and butlers ghosted around the stage quietly moving the furniture as if it too suffered bewitchment. This sense of the house in ceaseless movement only added to the suspense. Britten writes great psychological portraits that unfold within the schemata of the music. Mackerras’ baton was as sharp as a surgical scalpel, dissecting and then distilling the diatonic and chromatic until they collided destructively in 12 degrees of delirium as the growing pervasion of evil bubbled through the mix. Between A natural and A flat lies only the faintest feather-light whisper of a semi-tone but in that fairy step lie the polar opposites between good and evil. So at least in the toneworld of the Screw.

‘The hidden life that stirs when the candle is out’ sang the undead Quint hauntingly in that uncomfortable scene when he is coiled python-like around young Miles’ bedpost, cajoling, terrifying and seducing him. The terrifying Miss Jessel who looked like she’d been freshly dug up from a lime pit near you, also member of the pre-deceased community, trying to lure Flora, the homicidal, precocious teenager but to what? Madness? Promiscuity? Suicide? Death metal? Dreadlocks?

Herewith lay my problem: I did find the group dynamic slightly confusing. Miss Jessel and Flora seemed to have been matched for a sense of dramatic symmetry. Whatever occurred between them wasn’t particularly convincing and had none of the power of the relationship between Quint and Miles. But Britten was always more interested in surveying the dynamics of attraction to underage boys (Peter Grimes and Death in Venice to name but two). The relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel which reached its apotheosis when Miss Jessel materialized out of the ENO floorboards to sing Yeats’ ‘The Ceremony of Innocence is drowned’ is half undead duet and half Daily Mail kiddy porn ring thing. But that is, of course, if Quint and Jessel are real. Which they might not be. They may just be shades of the hapless Governess’ hysteria, conjured to explain the children’s lack of innocence for woe betide anyone that thinks the destruction of innocence may come from within. Even if they are mere oozing protoplasm or misfired neurons, the undead pair are quite magnetic. Quint’s melisma as he distantly sings ‘Miles’ uncoiling eerily from the back of the stage and Miles’ plangent singing of ‘Malo’ is revelatory and disturbing. Flora’s brief disrobing in front of the mirror as Miss Jessel, mummified in crinoline and dreads, glided around her, seemed an afterthought, though they were both quite wonderful singers. Why their guardian never wants anything to do with the children is never explained – whether it is callous abandonment or fear we don’t really know. Why was Miles expelled from school? Had he made too free with his fellows?

Charlie Manton’s (as Miles) voice was sometimes slightly lost in the stellar sonic surrounds but his rendition of Malo and the Piper song were quite sublime. And he could act and mime playing the piano rather well. Amazing singing from the Rebecca Evans as the Governess, though slightly over attached to the histrionics and hysteria in a manner Henry James probably would have applauded. So that’s the ENO this week: No big tunes. No big hair. No Chinese restaurants. No big Wagnerian tonka tanks. All is well.

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