Warm summer nights and a chilled drink are the perfect accompaniments to a bit of open air opera. So it would be easy to forgive Regent’s Park Theatre for turning to a real crowd pleaser for this summer’s season. Perhaps a bit of Puccini or Mozart? Britten’s The Turn of the Screw isn’t your average opera.
Yes, it’s set in a big country house (like The Marriage of Figaro) and it has a supernatural twist (like Don Giovanni) but that’s where the similarities end. For starters it has a tiny orchestra – just 13 players – with a heavy bias towards percussion, harp and keyboard instruments. There’s also a cast of just seven. Add to that the fact that two of the lead roles are sung by children and you have an opera that’s unusual, if not unique in the repertoire, not to mention the fact that two of the characters turn out to have died before the opera even begins.
Thankfully, the things that make The Turn of the Screw a challenge – for performers, creative team and audience alike – can also be its real strengths. Happily that’s the case here. This Regent’s Park Theatre and English National Opera joint production is more than up to the challenge. The opera opens with a scene setting prologue. A young governess has been hired to look after two children, Miles and Flora, at a remote country house called Bly. Their uncle, who is also their guardian, hired her on three conditions: never to contact him about the children, not to ask about the history of the house and never to abandon the children.
As Act 1 progresses the governess’s initial worries about taking the position begin to fade, until a letter arrives saying Miles has been expelled from school but giving no reason. She then hears footsteps at night and sees see a strange man in the grounds. When she describes the vision to the housekeeper she discovers the man was Peter Quint, a former servant at the house, who possibly abused Miles and had a relationship with the children’s previous governess Miss Jessel, who subsequently left Bly and died. Shortly after Quint also died in strange circumstances.
The act closes with it becoming clear that the ghosts of both Quint and Miss Jessel are watching the house, and the children, and that they appear to have some hold over Miles and Flora. So far, so ghostly. This could all fall completely flat in the wrong hands, but, sympathetically handled it can be truly chilling. The decision to delay the start time of the opera from 7:30 to 8pm was a stroke of genius. It means that, as the tension rises through the second act and the action becomes increasingly threatening and intimate, fading light pulls the audience’s focus right into what’s happening in (and around) the stage. The effect is perfect and would be incredibly difficult to achieve in a theatre.
The staging plays a huge part in the success of this production. The space is used to its full potential, with Quint and Jessel appearing off-stage in the shadows and coming in through the audience to call to the children as night falls. The cast fully cover their end of the bargain too though. Particular praise has to go to the children, sung by Daniel Alexander Sidhom and Elen Willmer. The drama hinges on their ability to walk the fine line between innocent and knowing, and they handle it admirably.
The Turn of the Screw is so much more than a country house ghost story. It’s about innocence and control, as so many of Britten’s operas are. But it’s also about something much darker – the effect of abuse on children and how shame and secrecy can forge an incredibly strong connection between abuser and abused. It’s an opera that, done right, has the ability to flicker on the fringes of your thoughts for days afterwards. Bravo to Regents Park Theatre and ENO for a brave choice and the ability to turn it into a compelling piece of theatre that takes full advantage of the setting it’s performed in.
The Turn of the Screw at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information on future productions please visit the website.