Question: what does a ghost look like on an opera stage? Answer, in Annilese Miskimmon’s production of Turn of the Screw for Opera Holland Park: exactly like anyone else. The ghost doesn’t have to look pale or weird to frighten you – what’s scary is that the ghost is there in the first place.

Diana Montague (Mrs Grose) with Dominic Lynch (Miles) and Ellie Laugharne (The Governess) © Alex Brenner
Diana Montague (Mrs Grose) with Dominic Lynch (Miles) and Ellie Laugharne (The Governess)
© Alex Brenner

Miskimmon’s straightforward period production works just fine because Britten’s music fills in all the gaps that your imagination might need. It’s an extraordinary score, pared down to just thirteen musicians. You might expect this to produce a more limited sonic palette than in Britten’s full orchestral scores like Peter Grimes or Billy Budd, but not a bit of it: Britten uses his instruments sparsely, in twos and threes, and achieves his usual kaleidoscope of different colours.

Since so few instruments are playing at a time, each musician is fearfully exposed, so it’s like playing a constant series of solo parts – the audience hears every note. The musicians, from the City of London Sinfonia and conducted by Steuart Bedford, rose to the challenge and played quite marvellously: each phrase carefully weighted, usually in the direction of building tension.

The production sticks closely to Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, which in turn sticks faithfully to the original Henry James novella, both in the flow of events, the atmosphere and the work’s fundamental ambiguity: even at the end, we don’t know for certain whether the ghosts are real or exist merely in the imagination of the central figure of the governess. This is probably just as well, since the James novella is a masterpiece of tension building, all the more so when enhanced by Britten’s music. A parallel visual story added to the orchestral interludes, depicting the teacher (a.k.a “the Prologue”) with a gaggle of schoolchildren: this was never permitted to obscure the main story, and it supported the general level of ambiguity, pointing at abuse of all sorts without ever being explicit.

Rosie Lomas (Flora) and Ellie Laugharne (The Governess) © Alex Brenner
Rosie Lomas (Flora) and Ellie Laugharne (The Governess)
© Alex Brenner

The pick of the singers were Diana Montague, a late replacement for Anne Mason as the housekeeper Mrs Grose, and Rosie Lomas as the child Flora. Montague took charge of the stage from the moment she appeared, a voice that had plenty of strength allied to flexibility. Lomas pulled off the extraordinary trick of combining childlike innocence with pure malevolence, combining a strong voice of great purity with vocal phrasing, looks and gestures perfectly timed to induce a sense of unease. Considering that Lomas is a fully grown adult, she also looked surprisingly credible as a young child. Dominic Lynch was a good, sinister Miles. As the ghostly couple of Quint and Miss Jessel, Brenden Gunnell and Elin Pritchard also turned in performances of great strength.

Disappointingly, in the lead role of the unnamed Governess, Ellie Laugharne wasn’t able to match these levels of authority and stage presence. Laugharne showed plenty of promise: she acts well and has an attractive voice, clear, perfectly in tune and free of vibrato. But the essence of The Turn of the Screw is that the Governess starts strong and relatively confident and is ready for the fight with the forces of darkness (real or imagined) until they finally overcome her. This requires her to be the strongest, most charismatic figure on the stage for the first three quarters or so of the opera, and I didn’t feel Laugharne ever approached that level.

Hats off to Opera Holland Park for staging The Turn of the Screw: it provides a very different experience, both musically and dramatically, to anything else in the repertoire, and one that’s well suited to the performance space. And hats off to Steuart Bedford for leading a magnificent musical performance. It’s a production well worth seeing, not least to remind one of how broad a church opera can be, encompassing every literary or dramatic genre: in this case, providing an intense dose of psycho-dramatic tension.