In Thomas de Mallet Burgess' production for New Zealand Opera of Britten's unsettling The Turn of the Screw, much is left purposefully ambiguous. Bly is a rather dilapidated home, with furnishings and clothing appearing to be fully in Victorian character. But the columns of the house are slanting at odd angles, suggesting the off-kilter world in which not everything is as it seems. The central dilemma as to whether Quint and Miss Jessel are real or merely projections from the Governess' unbalanced mind is never really answered here. She seemed steadfast in her moral determination that the children must be saved but at the same time is creepily controlling in her scene with Miles, as though trying to claim him for herself as much as Quint is attempting.

Alexandros Swallow (Miles) and Alexa Harwood (Flora) © Marty Melville
Alexandros Swallow (Miles) and Alexa Harwood (Flora)
© Marty Melville

The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are pallid, wraith-like figures, physically almost too obvious for the viewer to take their existence without a grain of salt. Nor does de Mallet-Burgess really engage with the exact relationship between the ghosts and the children; any suggestion of child abuse is left to the discretion of the viewer aside from Mrs Grose's comment that Quint had "made free" with everyone. Though perhaps lacking a forceful directorial viewpoint, the production allowed all the ambiguities of Myfanwy Piper's libretto to play out on stage for the audience to make their own minds up about.

Anna Leese (Governess) © Marty Melville
Anna Leese (Governess)
© Marty Melville

Luckily, an incredible cast had been gathered to bring the story to life. This opera is dominated by the figure of the Governess and soprano Anna Leese took this role on an incredible journey as the opera progressed. Her voice sounded marvellously fresh and youthful in the opening scenes, joy radiating her tone but always with an undercurrent of nerves reflecting her deeply unconfident character. Leese was superb at vocally and physically creating Governess's highly-strung disposition, seeming unbalanced enough that the reliability of her visions of the ghosts was always suitably questionable.v

Jared Holt's Quint deftly handled his opening and closing melismas with a disconcertingly sinister manner and established himself as a credible danger to the children through an unexpected robustness of voice. His tone, sweet when directed towards Miles, turned effectively raspy in his encounter with Miss Jessel. Madeleine Pierard was luxury casting as the ghost of the children's former governess, a constant but indefinable presence. Her attractive flicker-vibrato and full-toned singing turned the bitter argument between her and Quint into a vocal, as well as a dramatic, highlight. It was nice also to see and hear veteran soprano Patricia Wright as a vocally refulgent Mrs Grose who remained unflinching in the face of everything that occurred. The superb Alexandros Swallow and Alexa Harwood were further highlights in the roles of the children Miles and Flora, with their incredibly natural stage presences. Swallow's final scene, as he admits Quint's role in his misbehaviour, was astonishingly moving for a performer so young. Both sang with fresh, sweet tone, effectively portraying youthful exuberance, resentment towards the Governess and an eerie ghostly possession.

Madeleine Pierard (Miss Jessel) and Jared Holt (Peter Quint) © Marty Melville
Madeleine Pierard (Miss Jessel) and Jared Holt (Peter Quint)
© Marty Melville

Rather than in a pit, the orchestra was hidden at the rear side of the stage but the positioning did not affect the aural impact, Britten's mixture of dissonance and tonality making its unsettling mark. As his twelve-tone theme reappeared in its various permutations, conductor Holly Mathieson gradually and almost imperceptibly built up the tension, a difficult task considering the restraint of Britten's scoring.

Much has been made of the decision to dispense with surtitles in this production, with the production team hoping this would allow the audience to be "fully focused on the performances and to engage with the psychology of the opera" without the distraction of the changing surtitles. This decision was largely vindicated. In the intimate space of the ASB Waterfront Theatre, one didn't feel their lack too often, especially as the cast was clearly devoted to bringing across the text as clearly as possible, falling into incomprehensibility in occasional ensembles or in some of Mrs Grose's highest-lying lines. Leese's Governess in particular made the words not just audible but imbued them with meaning and nervous emotion.

Patricia Wright (Mrs Grose) and Anna Leese (Governess) © Marty Melville
Patricia Wright (Mrs Grose) and Anna Leese (Governess)
© Marty Melville

The Turn of the Screw is an unsettling work and a rare expedition into post-war music for New Zealand Opera, whose repertory generally leans toward the tried-and-true. But astonishingly vivid performances from an ensemble cast made it one of the most outstanding of their recent productions, an auspicious sign as de Mallet Burgess takes over the General Directorship of the company.

****1