The Turn of the Screw


Benjamin Britten The Turn of the Screw chamber opera to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the novella by Henry James. Directed 2011 by Jonathan Kent at Glyndebourne. Stars Miah Persson (Governess), Toby Spence (Quint), Thomas Parfitt (Miles), Joanna Songi (Flora), Susan Bickley (Mrs. Grose), and Giselle Allen (Miss Jessel). Jakub Hrůša conducts members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Designs by Paul Brown; lighting designed by Paul Henderson; sound supervision by Jean Chatauret; music produced by Sébastian Chonion; produced by George Bruell and Toni Hajal; directed for film by François Roussillon. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

Gramophone praised this disc twice in 2013. Mike Ashman gave it his "strong recommendation" in the November issue at page 93. The "Britten Centenary Issue" (page 39) says that "Jonathan Kent's production is perfectly handled and he draws some outstanding performances from his cast."

It's astonishing how much is accomplished in this opera with so few people in front of the scenery. On the stage are 6 singers (no chorus). In the pit you find 14 persons: a string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, piano, drummer, and a baton (some musicians play several related instruments). Together these 20 souls keep you squirming for almost 2 hours under the turning screw. Here's the pit:

I'm not a musicologist, but I suspect that Britten's score may be the greatest piece ever written for 8 to 24 players (24 is my definition of a small chamber orchestra). The runner-up would be Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which also was scored originally for 13 players. TTotS has been regularly produced all over the world since its premiere thanks to its well-known story and the relatively modest forces that are required to put it on.

Even thought this is an amazing score played by top musicians, we do have a concern about the sound quality in subject title. Here's a comment from wonk James Kreh:

The audio recording (with both stereo and multi-channel tracks) offers excellent clarity, with the voices convincingly integrated with the orchestra. With such a small orchestral ensemble performing in a relatively small theater, the singers can be heard without “pushing” their voices nearly as hard as usual in opera. There is one significant technical issue that should be addressed: my OPPO BDP-103 player reports that this disc has a stereo LPCM track encoded at 48kHz/16-bit (just barely an improvement over 44.1kHz/16-bit encoding on CDs). This is not consistent with the de facto minimum standard of 48kHz/24-bit recording and encoding for fine-arts productions on Blu-ray. My player does not display the bit depth for dts-HD Master Audio tracks, but it’s probably safe to assume that the 48kHz sampling rate is also associated with 16-bit audio on the 5.1 soundtrack. It’s very difficult to assess the practical shortcomings of this audio issue on the final result. Experts who have performed A/B comparisons of the same recording encoded at 48/24 vs. “down-rezzed” to 48/16 are in universal agreement that the former is audibly better in terms of resolution, transparency, and potential dynamic range.

One thing is for sure about the sound---the product does not give accurate information for the consumer to know what he's getting. That is, we think, something the entire HDVD publishing industry needs to work on.

François Roussillon was involved in this title from the start and it's published on his FRA label. The picture quality and video content is state-of-the-art in every way. As always with FRA, the packaging and keepcase booklet are themselves works of art.

Now we have the technical stuff out of the way and we can turn our attention to the content of this challenging title. There is a lot to puzzle over in the libretto, but we can cover the main mysteries.

The Henry James TTotS is one of the most famous ghost stories in English literature. The main character is the Governess, who is never named. We will call her "the Governess" or "Miss." The Governess is hired by the Guardian, the uncle and only relative of two orphan children who live at Bly, a rural estate. The 3 conditions of her employment (per the book) are ominous: she must never ask about the history of Bly, never contact the Guardian about the children, and make all decisions concerning the children herself while never abandoning them. These extraordinary demands are, of course, illegal because a Guardian has extensive duties to his wards which he must personally perform and cannot delegate even to the experts he may hire. And why would the Governess agree to take on such onerous responsibility? The libretto states that she was smitten by the handsome, dashing Guardian and agreed to his bidding in a daze of infatuation. Or is it just possible that the Governess had a more sinister motive: that she was tempted to see what it would be like to have absolute, unchecked power over two children who would be isolated and wholly dependent on her?

So now we arrive at the thing about TTotS that has fascinated people ever since it was published in 1898. The book is a masterpiece of ambiguity to the point that even experts can't agree (1) whether there were ghosts that were defeated by the Governess, or (2) whether the children defend themselves against the Governess, or (3) the whole story is a product of the insanity of the Governess.

Well, in this telling by Myfanwy Piper and Jonathan Kent, the ghosts are real and the Governess puts up a valiant fight, but the libretto still raises questions about her motivations and actions. Life is full of secrets and surprises.

I have to explain what I mean when I say the ghosts are "real." As the story unfolds, the Governess discovers that the children have been ruined by psychological and sexual exploitation. The ghosts appear, but they are literary manifestations---still very real---of the damage that has been done.

Now we see the Governess (Miah Persson) on the train to Bly. We read her thoughts as she approaches the mysterious estate. The train ride is brilliantly portrayed onstage and the chamber orchestra gives you the most vivid aural impression one could imagine of a steam-locomotive train:


The housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Susan Bickley) is relieved to have help with the children. Miles (Thomas Parfitt) is about 10 or 11 and is on summer vocation from his boarding school. Flora (Joanna Songi) is about 6 and still plays with dolls. She's in home school. Songi is probably older than Parfitt (I think), but she's  convincing playing a younger sister. (Casting Flora is doubtless harder than casting all the rest of the singers together.)

Miss is enchanted by Bly and the children, who are so mature and well behaved. Here she's at the greenhouse daydreaming about the handsome Guardian. She wishes he could see how well everything is going at Bly:

But there are strange things that Miss tends to overlook or dismiss. Once in deep night she heard footsteps quietly pass her door. Sometimes she thinks she sees a stranger on the grounds. She got a letter from Miles's school expelling him for "injury to other students," but she ignored it because Miles is so good. Sometimes the children do thing that are sexually suggestive, but Miss is too innocent to notice:

Suddenly Miss is stricken dumb when the male ghost (Toby Spence) clearly appears:

Miss describes the ghost to Mrs. Grose, who recognizes who he is: Quint! When the Master of Bly died, Quint was a manservant who was left in charge for a long time. Grose explains how Quint was "free" with the previous Governess, Miss Jessel, who fell under Quint's control. Quint was also "free" with the children, but Mrs. Grose was too ignorant to understand the full extent of what was happening and too timid to speak up, especially when there was no one who cared to listen. Miss Jessel died (by drowning in Lake Bly  per our director Kent). Finally Quint also died, leaving Mrs. Grose as the senior servant on the estate:  

Miss understands the threat better than Mrs. Grose. Quint has come back for the children:

Now Miss begins to understand the children better. Their behavior is so mature and good because they are hiding things. The battle lines are being drawn, and it's not clear if the children are neutral ground or allies of the enemy:

The ghost of Miss Jessell (Giselle Allen) appears with Quint before the children as they bathe. Here we have our first shot of the whole stage---a white box. (No dark shadows like in a Victorian ghost story). The stage is a sterile agar dish where the growth and death of organisms can be clearly displayed. The floor consists of two concentric circles which turn (a bit like a screw) to move props on and off. A wall of glass windows is frequently moved from above into view. This represents the dividing line between the living and the dead, good and evil, lust and love, sanity and madness, hetero and homosexual (please stop this). All the membranes are there, along with the seepage and osmosis. In this manner the tiny Glyndebourne stage can be made to represent the myriad ideas and ambiguities cooked into the book by Henry James and his successors. Below we barely see the wall because it stands at a right angle to the front of the stage and forms the side of the house. On the left is the bath; on the right it's winter with snow gently falling. The ghosts beckon the children to follow them, and Miles is outside almost naked:

Note the resemblance of Quint and Miles. (Jessel and Flora also look alike):

Miss and Mrs. Grose discover the children with the door open to the winter cold. The ghosts flee. Miles makes a confession:

Act 1 closes as Miss embraces Miles exactly as Quint did a few moments before:

The pace quickens in Act 2. Miss begins to understand that the children, although living in the manor at Bly, are really with "the others."

Miles confronts Miss and challenges her to either report to the Guardian or get out of his way:

Terrified, Miss resolves to abandon the children and to fly to the Guardian. She goes to pack, and discovers that Miss Jessel has already returned to the room (which Jessel occupied before she died). Jessel looks exactly as she did when they pulled her out of Lake Bly:

Enraged, Miss confronts and evicts Jessel. Now Miss has truly made her decision: she will stay no matter what:

Miss watches the children constantly like toddlers near a swimming pool. But Miles distracts Miss when he begins to play the piano with supernatural brilliance. Suddenly, Miss realizes this was a trick and that Flora has slipped out of the house to join Jessel. Miss and Mrs. Grose find Flora at the lake where the ghost of Jessel resides. Miss sees Jessel but Mrs. Grose does not:

Mrs. Grose takes charge of Flora. The game of Bly is rapidly coming to its end. Later that night Flora tells Mrs. Grose all that has happened. All of Miss's fears are confirmed. Grose announces that she and Flora are leaving immediately for London where Grose will demand audience with the Guardian. Miss will stay at Bly for a final showdown with Quint:

I've already told too much, so I'll not describe the end of Bly. Instead I'll explain an earlier scene that is related to the end of the tale. Before Miss first saw Quint, she was once tutoring Miles when he sang a strange, sad song using the Latin word "malo." Miss was completely baffled by this (as was I):

According to Wikipedia, Miles was singing a mnemonic device that reminds students of the different ways "malo" can be used in Latin. It is, of course, an adjective that can mean "a bad boy." It is also one of the conjugations for the Latin verb "malle" or "to prefer." Finally, it can mean "apple." Singing this song was Miles's first test for Miss, and she flunked it. Miles knows more Latin than his tutor. He also knows more than his tutor about having sex with men (and boys). He also knows more than his tutor about having sex with women (and girls). So what use is this tutor to Miles? (I wasn't smart enough to figure this out for myself. A ghost woke me up at 3:00 in the morning and explained it to me.)

I hope this review has given you the creeps.

If you have a bit more patience, let's sum up and give this title a grade. With the exception of the uncertainty about the sound specs, this is technically a flawless opera video. Kent and Jakub Hrůša have come up with a masterful interpretation of a most challenging libretto and score. Because of the doubts and ambiguities build into this work, it's not going to appeal to everyone. If you have a keen interest in contemporary opera, this is an "A+" title. If you are more of a traditionalist or a hard-core audiophile, this might be a "B" title. As a compromise, I'll give it an "A-."