The traditional wisdom about Britten’s chamber opera, based on the Henry James ghost story, is that the audience must be kept guessing. Are the ghosts real or imagined? Is Miles evil or merely abused? Is the Governess neurotic or at sea in a situation beyond her control? But occasionally there is a case for coming down on one side or the other, as Alessandro Talevi does in his new production for Opera North.
Screw is that strange mixture – a work scored for chamber forces but with a sound that, thanks to Britten’s canny scoring, easily fills a conventional theatre. It fits the Grand Theatre like a glove.
By placing a four-poster bed centre-stage, Talevi and his designer, Madeleine Boyd, make clear that not only is the action being played in period, but it is also intimately related to the world of dreams. The crucial sequences involving the ghostly Quint and the pregnant Miss Jessel take place while the Governess is asleep, haunted by nightmares that her wards might escape her suffocating control. It is a Freudian interpretation that minimises the opera’s spookiness but makes for a realistic psychological study.
In this context the Governess is the least attractive character, an impression intensified by Elizabeth Atherton’s meagre timbre, but she gives 110 per cent. Benjamin Hulett is one of the most seductive-sounding Quints I have heard, and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel works her spell. James Micklethwaite excels as Miles: a powerful performance for a 13-year-old. Richard Farnes and the orchestra compensate for the lack of theatrical punch on stage with a reading that radiates colour and intensity. () www.operanorth.co.uk