A valuable voice is about to be stilled as one tiny but treasurable opera company closes its doors after 12 years of absorbing work. Even those of us who came late to the Bury Court party have found much to enjoy in that welcoming Hampshire barn, from Aylin Bozok’s stylishly sensitive productions of Pelléas et Mélisande and The Rake’s Progress to Greg Eldridge’s splendid Giulio Cesare in 2018.

Bury Court Opera's <i>The Turn of the Screw</i> © Robert Workman
Bury Court Opera's The Turn of the Screw
© Robert Workman

Bury Court Opera is bowing out in style with a home-grown masterpiece, Britten’s ghost opera The Turn of the Screw. It’s been directed with panache by the fast-rising Ella Marchment, who opts for a safe period setting with good, practical designs by Holly Pigott which she packs with her own flair and flourishes. There’s a special moment of spine-tingling brilliance in the schoolroom scene when young Miles (an assured Harry Hetherington) delivers his “Malo” song like a child possessed. The power to chill in a stub of chalk and a borrowed hand…

Britten’s take on Henry James’s tale of two children in a remote mansion who appear to be possessed by evil spirits has little of the source novel’s ambiguity. Whereas the author lets us wonder whether it’s all an unhealthy fantasy in the neurotic mind of the children’s Governess, the composer and his librettist Myfanwy Piper give us proper, palpable ghosts, red in tooth and claw. Indeed, at one point Marchment’s dead Peter Quint pours a draft of wine from a decanter and quaffs it, which isn’t bad going for a spectral apparition.

Bury Court Opera's <i>The Turn of the Screw</i> © Robert Workman
Bury Court Opera's The Turn of the Screw
© Robert Workman

Paul Wingfield and CHROMA Ensemble delivered a taut, finely-judged account of the opera’s chamber score in support of a splendid singing company. As the Governess, Alison Rose was the ideal suffering soprano, her eyes an imbroglio of psychological disturbances, while Emily Gray matched her as the stooping, exhausted housekeeper Mrs Grose – a very convincing performance despite the odd patch of over-projection in these intimate surroundings. As Flora, the second of the children, Bury Court elected to cast an adult, Jennifer Clark, who was way better than competent but crucially ill-matched to her real-child brother in Hetherington’s Miles. Really, one has to wonder why the adult casting option for Flora still persists in this opera. It’s not as if Marchment’s production takes either child down roads that are graphically dark.

Bury Court Opera's <i>The Turn of the Screw</i> © Robert Workman
Bury Court Opera's The Turn of the Screw
© Robert Workman

I’ve rarely heard a better matched pair of ghosts than Daisy Brown (Miss Jessel) and Andrew Dickinson (Quint). Brown, becoiffed like Helena Bonham Carter in one of her gothic roles, sang her underwritten role with shuddering conviction, her account abetted by subtle allusions to the character's death by drowning. Dickinson, for his part, did what he usually does, which is to make one question why he is not yet a big-name tenor. He delivered the opera’s Prologue (and, silently, its conclusion) in the cape-and-cane guise of a sinister master of ceremonies, while as a red-haired Quint he was a veritable unguent of evil, given to unexpected pop-up entrances and blest in the second act with one of the most effective gauze illusions you’re likely to see. Lighting designer Ben Pickersgill certainly has the measure of the black hole effect.

Some of Marchment’s visual surprises lose their power because she overuses them, but working in such a confined space her options must have been limited. Nevertheless she has delivered a deliciously creepy show that’s full of original ideas and is performed under Wingfield to a high musical standard. It makes for a fond farewell, so goodnight and thank you Bury Court Opera.

****1