Henry James’ chilling 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is a curious story and might be considered a gift to any composer as the basis of an extraordinarily sinister opera libretto. When the idea to compose a chamber opera based on James’ tale was considered by the fertile musical mind of England’s most prominent opera composer, Benjamin Britten, and the librettist Myfanwy Piper (wife of the artist John Piper, who made a memorial window to Britten in Aldeburgh Church depicting scenes from Britten’s three Church Parables), it was inevitable that a masterpiece was in the making. And so, on 12 September 1954, in the Venetian splendour of the Teatro La Fenice, Britten and Piper’s terrifyingly intimate, modestly proportioned and undeniably disturbing vision received its première.

Andrew Tortise in Buxton Festial's The Turn of the Screw
Andrew Tortise in Buxton Festial's The Turn of the Screw

Enduringly popular at opera houses great and small, The Turn of the Screw has rarely been overlooked as an inspired creation. A little investigation reveals that, since the Buxton Festival started presenting opera in 1979, they rarely produce the same opera twice, though Screw has made three appearances in 1995, 2004 and 2012; prior to this year it had been being neck-and-neck with Purcell’s King Arthur (1986 and 2007).

The present production, a Festival co-production with Northern Ireland Opera directed by Oliver Mears is, to say the least, bleak. The set designs, props and lighting design are minimal but contribute successfully to a thoroughly miserable account of James’ dingy country estate, which is called Bly – it even sounds grim to utter. Despite the single black, white and grey backdrop depicting Bly’s run-down exterior, the flies designed to split up the stage and highlight the different rooms, and a few bits of creaking furniture employed to represent Bly’s suffocating, invasive interior, the audience is allowed to manifest much of the horror of “what might be” in their own minds, without unnecessary distractions.

This production brings the action into what appeared to be somewhere between the 1940s and 1960s, though the costumes were very simple and the single dateable item of stage material, a telephone, did not present to me any immediate clue of a decade.

Opening the evening, tenor Andrew Tortise occupied a solitary chair, from which he exhorted with excellent diction and in lyrical tone the foundations of the opera’s plot: “It is a curious story, I have it written in faded ink...” Thereafter he departed from the Prologue and assumed the role of Peter Quint. As the spectre of a former valet to the master of the house, Tortise’s Quint was icy cold and bitterly sinister. However, whilst the voice was well suited to Britten’s long, lyrical melismas, in passages of heightened intensity (such as the scene in which he appears to the boy, Miles) a greater sense of rhythmic urgency and definition would have benefited the characterisation of such a brute as Quint.

Our ill-fated heroine, the young, inexperienced Governess, was sung by Fiona Murphy, who suited the role well and sang with impassioned zeal which, in tandem with her acting, made for a rich characterisation. However, as with Quint, a greater emphasis on singing Britten’s correct rhythms – which are integral to his musical structure – would only have heightened her performance.

Miss Jessel, looking rather like a character out of a Tim Burton film, was played by Giselle Allen, whose rather static interpretation of the deceased and twisted former governess was well suited to her declamatory miseries. Yvonne Howard, an experienced interpreter of Britten, presented just the sort of Mrs Grose that one could hope to encounter – clear, warm-hearted and steadfast in her duty and loyalty to the Governess, and yet convincing in her terror when recollecting Quint’s evil.

Miles and Flora, played by Thomas Copeland and Lucia Vernon respectively, were suitably horrible monsters of children who sang well in Britten’s taxing score. I would suggest, however, that in the closing scene Miles’ denouncement of Quint, “Peter Quint, you devil!” should be a positively blood-curdling shriek.

The ensemble, directed by Nicholas Chalmers, were on good form but here again I would insist on greater rhythmic vitality to really lift Britten’s score off the page.

Residing, as I do, in a small room at the end of a long, dark corridor in a boarding school (abandoned by the students for the summer vacation), an evening spent with James’ phantoms alone is enough to chill the blood. But, when combined with Britten’s haunting score and Piper’s memorable libretto, every creak of wooden panels and drip, drip, drip of an old leaking tap, thrills me, fills me with fantastic terrors; shuddering and glancing around my room in wide-eyed suspicion and nervous anticipation at what ancient ghosts might be observing my progress, I close with...

Bravo, Buxton!