Performances at Holland Park take place in front of an atmospherically derelict mansion at dusk. So it is appropriate that the company’s first foray into Britten is with The Turn of the Screw. The haunted house in which the action takes place is easy to envisage here. Even so, there are some major problems to solve to get this very intimate chamber opera onto such a large stage. Director Annilese Miskimmon and designer Leslie Travers fill the space with a ‘big idea’, a parallel schoolroom setting. It’s an interesting concept, but one that detracts more than it adds. The production survives it though, largely thanks to the characterisations of each of the roles. Both the acting and the singing are excellent, and make for compelling drama, even if the narrative seems to be competing against the setting from beginning to end.

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The schoolroom idea emerges from the prologue, which is given by a teacher in an empty classroom. The implication is that this is the boarding school from which Miles has just returned. The stage throughout the opera is set up in this classroom format, and with mute vignettes of uniformed schoolboys filing past or rearranging furniture at each of the scene changes. For the most part, the action has to act against this scenario in which it has been placed. The country house has to be imagined, or evoked though a few props. Some clever use is made of gauze-fronted cabinets at the back of the stage, to suggest the Governess’ train at the start of the first act, and for ghostly appearances of Quint and Miss Jessel later on. In the first act, Quint often appears from above the backdrop to glower down on proceedings; the device is effective the first time, but feels laboured later on. That apart, the drama of the first act is played out to impressive effect, with the few props – some classroom desks, an upright piano in the corner – filling in for anything the story might require.

The performance began at 8 and there was a long interval between the acts. None of this was much help for those of us who live out of town, but the motivation was clear: it allowed the first act to be staged in daylight and the second effectively at night. The more sinister goings-on of the second act are presented in low light and with long shadows. The lighting design, by Mark Jonathan, was particularly effective here, all low angles to give the singers a more angular profile and to project shadows against the backdrop. The classroom setting is broken up a little for this second act, the cabinets along the backdrop are set diagonally, providing more corners in which Quint and Jessel can lurk. Also, the interludes with the teacher and the schoolboys are virtually abandoned in the second act, and so distract less.

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The production is well cast, and the singers well directed to emphasise the contrasts between their personalities and temperaments. The finest performance, both dramatically and musically, is from Ellie Laugharne as the Governess. She is all straight-laced and prim, continually appalled by what she finds at Bly, but determined to maintain an air of superiority above it. Laugharne’s voice is clear and focussed, ideal for Britten’s efficient and unadorned writing. She also has excellent diction, clearly projecting every line. Diana Montague is a late addition to the cast, standing in for an indisposed Anne Mason. She presents Mrs Grose as flustered and temperamental, which comes through in her vocal performance in wide vibrato and more erratic phrasing. All of which is fully appropriate to the part, even though some clarity is lost, especially in this cavernous performing space. Elin Pritchard seems young for Miss Jessel, yet she convinces. She is presented as the exact opposite of Laugharne’s Governess, licentious and coercive, everything the Governess resists. Their faceoff early in the second act becomes a pivotal moment in this production. Brenden Gunnell is less convincing as Quint. He seems too passive here to be the source of all the evil. Vocally, he is up to the task, but he is outclassed in this otherwise strong cast.

Any performance of The Turn of the Screw relies on mature and convincing performances of the child roles of Miles and Flora, and both are excellent here. Dominic Lynch has the ideal balance of innocence and implied menace in his stage presence; everything about him is childlike, but nothing is simple. Vocally, he is good, but he struggles with some of the high notes. The role of Flora is taken by Rosie Lomas, who looks to be the same age, but is in fact in her early 20s. She gives an excellent performance – properly creepy, but also continually engaged with all the other singers. Perhaps it wasn’t fair on Lynch to cast him against a singer so much his senior, especially as Lomas has a mature and fully trained voice against which he struggles to compete. The story should revolve around Miles, but here Flora continually competes for that attention.

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In the pit, veteran Britten conductor Stuart Bedford led a masterful reading . He is getting on in years, but is able to lead and control the music with a remarkable economy of physical gestures. Despite the expansive stage setting, Bedford was able to retain the chamber character of the music, always working within tight stylistic and expressive boundaries to the give the music the coherence and focus it requires. A great performance from the orchestra too.  Special mention should go to pianist (plus celesta) Elizabeth Rowe and percussionist Glyn Matthews for impressive accounts of what amount to concertante solo parts.

The second act of this production is considerably stronger than the first, thanks in part to the more atmospheric lighting, and to moving away from the distracting schoolroom setting. In fact, the idea here seems to be to present the first as a preparation to the second, a strategy suggested by the work itself. That works well, but it falls down in the last scene, which lacks the sense of claustrophobia and intensity required to bring the story to a close. There are plenty of strengths to this production though, particularly in the earlier scenes of the second act. All round, a daring venture for Opera Holland Park, not a complete success, but impressive enough to justify further repertoire choices in this direction in the future.

Gavin Dixon

Three stars

(photos: Alex Brenner)

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