DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw (complete opera), Blu-ray (2012)

Outstanding in every way that counts; this production goes to the top of the list for video and sung renditions.

Published on October 16, 2013

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw (complete opera), Blu-ray (2012)

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw (complete opera), Blu-ray (2013)

Miah Persson (The Governess)/Toby Spence (Peter Quint)/ Susan Bickley (Mrs. Grose)/ Giselle Allen (Miss Jessel)/ Joanna Songi (Clara)/ Thomas Parfitt (Miles)/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Jakub Hrusa, conductor
Director: Jonathan Kent
Studio: FRAMusica EDV 1610 FRA507 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]
Video: 16:9 HD Color
Audio: PCM Stereo 2.0, DTS 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
All Regions
Length: 111 minutes
Bonus: Interviews with Jonathan Kent and Jakub Hrusa, 22 minutes
Rating: *****

Britten’s The Turn of the Screw is easily one of his greatest and most effective works. Henry James’s novella was successfully set by librettist Myfanwy Piper, originally a gothic ghost story, but now transformed by the composer into an intense psychological drama that brings into questions the nature of youth, innocence, and some very direct allusions to abuse and pedophilia.

Basically the plot revolves around a young governess who has arrived after being asked by the children’s uncle to take care of the two orphaned children, and not reporting anything about them to him, nor ask questions about the Bly house where they live, nor ever abandon the kids. An older housekeeper resides there as well. As the plot progresses we find that the previous servant who is now dead, one Peter Quint, is appearing to the young boy Miles, who it is highly suggested had at least an inappropriate relationship. Quint also took advantage of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, who also had unsuitable contacts with the children. During the course of the action we find that the children themselves are still under the seductive influence of both these “ghosts”, and that the new governess experiences herself a fall from grace in the controlling and perhaps too intrusive manner that she pursues the whole story. The final utterance from the boy Miles, finally naming the devil who haunts him, is one of the most harrowing in modern opera: “Peter Quint, you devil!” And then he dies in the arms of the distraught governess.

The story in less skillful hands could quickly degenerate into a mass of unwieldy and sordid inferences, especially in a modern setting. But Britten is careful to couch his allusions in enough cloudiness about what really happened—which we are never told—and in music that distracts us from the details and focuses more on the here and now with pointed dissonance accented by a basically tonal structure. The opera has a prologue and sixteen scenes, each preceded by a variation on the twelve-note ‘Screw’ theme. But the tone of the work is not atonal, and I have always thought that if the composer has decided to do a full-blown twelve tone work it would have distorted completely the down-to-earth reality of the situation and instead seated it as a fully psychological piece devoid of the idea that the children really are seeing ghosts (some production deny this aspect of the piece.)

The scenery is fantastic—sparse but effective and lacking in nothing, revolving around a giant rotating glass window that turns into a school room, a lake, a drawing room, and proves a dividing line between the safe inside and dangerous outside, circa 1954. Technology is used in a brilliant and tasteful manner, especially the use of video in some amazingly clever ways. The production, done at Glyndebourne, reflects their normally unique and creative method of presenting operas of all stripes in visually and musically strong ways. The cast is uniformly superb. Miles and Clara are played by two young artists adept in acting and fine characterization. Miss Jessel is controlled yet vigorously portrayed in a manner reflecting one both wronged and guilty. Toby Spence’s Quint is suitably chilly and “normal” at the same time, ghostly in the knowledge that we know the devil that lies behind his good looks and affected manners. Susan Bickley ‘s housekeeper is formidable and yet haunting in her representation, exceptionally well-sung. But the real star is Miah Persson as the governess, a beautiful depiction full of turn-on-a-dime emotional responses and gloriously sung vocal lines that are anything but easily conquered, despite their idiomatic comforts so well presented by a composer who knows the voice as well as Britten.

This is a not-to-be-missed release for anyone who loves the composer or who appreciates first-class opera productions.

— Steven Ritter

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