The State Opera South Australia has another winner on its hands in an imaginatively creative Turn of the Screw directed by Stuart Maunder. Roger Kirk’s massive Bly House set, a very bleak house indeed, features panels that go up, down and sideways to produce a stunning tower, chapel and several other rooms. His costumes convey a sombre 19th-century bleakness, with lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish giving the ghostly Peter Quint a green aura, and Miss Jessel a blue. It creates a dour and lonely setting for two orphaned children living with a housekeeper who “had only to do with the house”. Does it also create an environment where a deceased former manservant and governess, the only humans they had been able to relate to, could become their imaginary friends? Or is something more evil afoot, something the new unnamed governess must seek to overcome? Is it all a figment of her imagination, or has she absorbed the imagination of the children in her care? Have terrible things indeed happened? Stuart Maunder’s production allows for many interpretations.

Max Junge (Miles) and Kanen Breen (Peter Quint)
© Soda Street Productions

Britten specialist Paul Kildea conducted a remarkably switched-on Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, bringing excitement and anticipation to each inter-variation transitions, then a balanced underpinning accompanying the singers. Truly remarkable! The screw was wound up only to be loosened again.

Maunder's staging opened on a huge stage, dwarfing navy-suited Kanen Breen standing to deliver the Prologue with immaculate diction. As he concluded, lighting exposed the governess, looking lost with suitcase and portmanteau at her side. Rachelle Durkin was the highlight of a talented all-star cast. Her magnificent soprano voice was rich and true, her lines delivered with clarity and authority. Her initial anxiety (“Why did I come?”), soon dissolving into contentment (“Bly, I begin to love you.”), until a fright (“a man looked through the window.”) set up the scenes of shock, fear, determination and a resolve to save the children, especially Miles – all these emotions so clearly expressed in her voice.

Kanen Breen (Peter Quint) and Fiona McArdle (Miss Jessel)
© Soda Street Productions

Breen's Peter Quint and soprano Fiona McArdle's Miss Jessel, the former governess, may have had a ghostly hue, but were very powerful presences on the stage. The final scene before the interval was commanding. In this production Quint and Jessel exercised hypnotic power over the children, hovering over and around them. Breen and McArdle’s manipulative control was completely convincing. They finally stood centrally hand in hand, their hypnotic “On the paths, in the woods, on the banks, by the walls …” really scary. It was brought to a stop by the appearance of the Governess and Mrs Grose and a magnificent quartet (or maybe a sextet if the children were singing, but if so their voices were not audible from my seat) before Quint and Jessel made their exit. The insecure Miles with his heart wrenching “I am bad, aren’t I?” ended the act.

Rachelle Durkin (Governess) and Eliza Brill Reed (Flora)
© Soda Street Productions

Breen and McArdle paired well. Their plotting moral destruction of the children, with the theme “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” sounded scary, threatening and evil. They were convincing us the gloves were off. A dread was in the air. Durkin, the governess could feel, fear and imagine it.

A bit of light relief came from the children, Max Junge as Miles and Eliza Brill Reed as Flora, on their way to church. Although miked to give volume to their voice they both sang clearly and cleverly. It appeared they had been coached to be more mechanical with less expression in their singing, yet it was hard to be unmoved by their cheerful improvisations to what seemed to be the Canticle of the Three Young Men from the Book of Daniel which commences Sunday prayer in the Catholic tradition. Junge portrayed a serious youth with little joy in life, except perhaps his grasp of Latin, and expressed his complicated relationship with Quint as an addiction rather than a joy.

Kanen Breen (Peter Quint), Rachelle Durkin (Governess) and Max Junge (Miles)
© Soda Street Productions

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Campbell has sung many roles with State Opera. Her rather bland role as Mrs Grose is not an easy one to sing, but Campbell gave her a distinct presence, strongest when she stood up to the Governess to question her sighting of Miss Jessel, then to her next morning apology that she had been wrong.

****1