Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne, Sussex

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After a tour round the country last year, The Turn of the Screw has arrived as the last opera of the season at Glyndebourne’s main summer festival. Two of Britten’s chamber operas had their premieres here – The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 and Albert Herring in 1947 – so its appearance is not before time.

Maybe the dark side of Henry James’s tale about two children possibly being abused in their haunted house at Bly was thought to be less than suitable for a picnic-cum-opera outing – though, if anything, the opera has come to seem more disturbing over the years.

This production is updated to the 1950s, the time of the opera’s composition. Jonathan Kent and his designer Paul Brown have delivered a clinical setting without much sense of claustrophobia – basically an empty white box that the stage revolve restlessly fills with bits of scenery. It looks messy and no reason is given why the action should take place at Christmas. The most atmospheric feature was provided by Glyndebourne’s bats flitting in and out.

Since the tour, however, the tension has been ratcheted up a notch. This comes partly from Edward Gardner’s conducting, which has an even tighter grip on the music than before, and the soloists from the London Philharmonic Orchestra are brilliantly assured. But the evil at the root of the story is also brought more openly to the surface and the later stages of the performance sent an authentic shiver down the spine.

The new Governess is Camilla Tilling, a bright-voiced soprano who looks perfectly prim in her 1950s dress and skilfully plays a brittle young woman ready to snap when the pressure is on. The two ghosts are well sung by William Burden as Peter Quint and Emma Bell as Miss Jessel, the latter letting out some blood-curdling sounds and made up to look a real fright. Anne-Marie Owens is again the warm-hearted Mrs Grose and the two children – Christopher Sladdin as Miles and Joanna Songi as Flora – are completely confident in their roles.

Did child abuse really happen at Bly? Kent’s production is heavily loaded towards the answer “yes”, but just enough uncertainty is left to send the audience home questioning what they have seen and heard.

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