A governess is hired to look after mischievous brother and sister by their rich father, no, not Mary Poppins but Turn of the Screw. It would take more than a spoonful of sugar to make this opera go down in a most delightful way. That is not to say that it was bad, far from it, it was superb, but the two scenarios of Hollywood musical and Opera North’s production could not be more diametrically opposed.
The novella by Henry James has been adapted by librettist Myfanwy Piper and composer Benjamin Britten to produce one of the darkest pieces of theatre you are ever likely to see. The director, Alessandro Talevi along with Set and Costume Designer Madeleine Boyd and Lighting Designer Matthew Haskins have ramped up the tension and the gloom even more, so much so that the thought of leaving the theatre to enter the teeth of Storm Dennis was the promise of light relief.
The action takes place in Bly, a house owned by the uncle and guardian of the aforementioned siblings, a boy called Miles and his sister Flora, but he is having a blast in London and wants nothing to do with his wards so he leaves their fate in the hands of staff who are under strict instructions never to contact him.
When the unnamed Governess, who we see at the very beginning, taking up her new position at Bly, arrives there is just the Housekeeper, Mrs Grose, in post. The previous servants died together in shame after the womanising ex-valet, Peter Quint, had an affair with Miss Jessel the previous Governess who, as a result, was with child.
The two women begin to bond, at one point almost approaching the same closeness as had the deceased couple, and all goes well until the Governess begins to see apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. There follows a battle for the heart and souls of the children between the living and dead characters. At one point I began to question which of the characters were living and which dead as Miles and Flora seemed to be able to see the ‘ghosts’ in the same way as the Governess, so much so that there were a couple of dances involving Miles and Peter Quint where each character, as well as wearing identical masks, mirrored the other in their movements.
As well as the unseen relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel there were undercurrents of sexual tension between Mrs Grose and The Governess when a hug lasted far longer than was necessary to indicate solidarity, and also between Miles and The Governess when he climbed into her bed and beckoned her after a tender moment when she had tried to comfort him. This was another time when doubt was cast as to whether the dead and the living were separate entities. Was Miles in fact the philandering Peter Quint?
Miles was played by Tim Gasiorek who is eleven years old going on forty-five. Reading his cv in the programme he has already done more tv than Ant and Dec but he wants to be a heart surgeon or a pilot when he grows up. His singing was excellent, his dancing superb and his timing spot-on.
Flora is sung by Jennifer Clark who is a graduate and so somewhat older than her character but she is fortunate enough to look very young and so was totally credible. Again, all aspects of her performance were top notch.
Before the curtain opened we were given a Prologue by Nicholas Watts who, having changed from a suit and tie and donned a red wig, then became Peter Quint. Miss Jessel was played by Eleanor Dennis and Mrs Grose by Heather Shipp. The main part of the evening, The Governess was sung by Sarah Tynan. I realise that I am a writer and should have a vocabulary approaching that of the OED but I am running out of superlatives for all of the singers who have appeared in the current Opera North Season and the talent on display here, was again, without exception, superb. Hey, I wouldn’t ask a basso profundo to hit a High C so please cut me a bit of slack here!
The direction of the piece by Alessandro Talevi was brilliant and the tension was always cranked up to 11. Leo McFall’s conducting of the orchestra also guaranteed this. The music is all narrative with no breaks for the odd aria, it also seemed, to this untrained ear at least, mostly to be in a minor key making it even more threatening, but etherial at the same time.
There is no choreographer credited so I am assuming that the director was responsible for the movement. Dancing is usually included as light relief but here it only added to the doom and gloom. Lighting designer Matthew Haskins obviously kept things as physically dark as he was able in order to match the atmosphere, although he was hampered to some extent by the need to have the orchestra pit illuminated from above, but that was probably as well. There was one particularly effective vignette when Flora and Miles did a dance behind a large four-poster bed in the middle of the stage. He had their performance lit from below so as to cast large, ominous shadows on the backcloth.
Finally to Set and Costume Designer Madeleine Boyd whose costumes perfectly reflected the time and place with the sets being very imaginative. There was one main set comprising a backcloth which acted as wallpaper but also partially raised to reveal a lake scene. The props were a desk and chair, a chest of drawers, and the large bed. Characters would climb to the top of the bed’s canopy which doubled as an occasional stage, and at one point Flora, so positioned, dropped three pieces of material from said canopy as scenery for a puppet theatre set which she used to act out part of the story with marionettes in the characters of those in the opera. Very imaginative indeed.
In conclusion I would like to say that this has been my first season of reviewing all of the Opera North productions although I did see a few of the Short Operas last year. There could not have been a more diverse choice from the American Musical, Street Scene, through the farcical Marriage of Figaro, and culminating in the dark, disturbing Turn of the Screw. They have indeed been, as this particular Governess would never say, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
The Turn of the Screw is at Leeds Grand Theatre on 18th, 21st, 25th and 27th February before going on tour to Theatre Royal, Newcastle on 5th March, The Lowry, Salford Quays on 11th March and Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 19th March.
For full details and booking please go to
The Turn of the Screw will also be streamed live from Leeds Grand Theatre on Friday, 21st February at 7.30GMT and will be available to watch for free until Friday, 21st August, 2020.
All photographs provided by Opera North