Last year, when the world was celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, Opera Holland Park gave the party a miss. This year it makes its first ever foray into Britten’s repertoire, with striking results. Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of The Turn of the Screw does not rank among the spookiest, especially in the light and airy confines of Holland Park’s opera marquee. But it respects the ambiguity of Henry James’s ghost story, while widening the frame of reference: hints of child abuse extend beyond the experiences of Flora and Miles in their haunted house at Bly. By setting the action in a school room, Miskimmon subtly references something more widespread and institutionalised, and so perhaps even darker.
Here, hordes of young schoolboys are intermittently marched from one side of the stage to the other while the six main characters proceed with the story. At times this juxtaposition can be confusing; at others it starts to grate, distracting from the plot and diluting the sense of isolation and claustrophobia so fundamental to the opera. Still, it allows themes of vulnerability, sexual awakening and abuse to resonate disturbingly. In Miskimmon’s interpretation the ghost of Peter Quint comes across like a bullying schoolmaster, in one scene bearing down on Miles as if intent on giving him the cane. Later the two of them sit side by side, fully-clothed, in a bath, Quint casually puffing on a cigarette. But at no point do they touch; Miskimmon is too subtle for that.
It all makes for a memorable evening, that leaves various questions open and boasts some inspired casting. Far from neurotic or hysterical, as she could equally convincingly be portrayed, Ellie Laugharne’s governess is the picture of virtue, vocally pure and girlish. By contrast Rosie Lomas, an excellent singer, breathes a remarkable sensuousness and maturity into Flora, befitting a role often described as “a woman in a child’s body”. Dominic Lynch is compelling as her glowering younger brother. Diana Montague, replacing Anne Mason, makes a matronly, creamy-voiced Mrs Grose. But the most pungent characterisations are saved for the ghosts: Brenden Gunnell’s strident Peter Quint and Elin Pritchard’s somewhat feral Miss Jessel. Meanwhile, conductor Steuart Bedford makes the most of Britten’s chilling score.