As the UK’s most forward-looking and free-thinking chamber orchestra, Aurora never simply puts on a ‘concert’ as we have known it. Its presentation of Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, billed in pre-event publicity as a concert performance, turned out to be neither that nor even a semi-staging. It was perhaps closure to an installation. Director/designers Sophie Hunter, Andrew Staples and William Reynolds took the references in Myfanwy Piper’s libretto to labyrinths and cat’s cradles and created a cuboid structure strung with a network of white tape on to which projections scattered images implying movement or atmosphere.

Sophie Bevan (The Governess) © Matt Jolly | Aldeburgh Music
Sophie Bevan (The Governess)
© Matt Jolly | Aldeburgh Music
Within the structure sat the 13 musicians of Britten’s chamber ensemble as well as, at various times, the four adult singers at their music stands. At its heart was the Governess, standing at the centre of her own labyrinth as she tries to unravel the complex forces enacted between the two children in her charge and the ghosts of Bly’s former employees – and the conflicts within her own mind. The ghosts themselves, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, wandered in and out of the structure as required by the drama, but the two children, Miles and Flora, were cast as free spirits, the only performers singing fully from memory and thus able to flit in and out of view, left, right and centre. Despite or because of this combination of the static and the active, the tightening of the dramatic screw was every bit as incisive as in a fully staged production, and there were telling interpretative points aplenty. For instance, was the very final image, of Miles projected on to conductor Nicholas Collon’s back, indicative of the boy’s supposed control over the whole course of events?

A kind of meta-theatre was present in the fact that Staples, as well as directing and thus having a hand in the way the drama unfolded in front of us, was also cast as the Prologue, who narrates our way into the story at the start. His major vocal role, though, was as Quint, the ghost of the former valet whose mysterious control over Miles forms the crux of Henry James’s enigmatic tale. The crisp clarity of his light tenor voice had just the right edge to lend his character its sinister pull. As the Governess, Sophie Bevan was compelling, the real crux of the drama, and conveying every nuance of the character’s insecurity and fearfulness, and taking only intermittent glances at her score to detract from her communicative focus towards the audience. Ann Murray was as vocally and dramatically commanding as ever as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, at her most persuasive when her incisive mezzo voice tapered off with her recognition of the Governess’ description of the ghost she had seen. Also luxury casting was Jane Irwin’s Miss Jessel, the opera’s shortest role, but conveyed here with convincing allure and vocal richness.

Louise Moseley (Flora) and Nicholas Collon © Sam Murray-Sutton | Aldeburgh Music
Louise Moseley (Flora) and Nicholas Collon
© Sam Murray-Sutton | Aldeburgh Music

But the real stars of the evening were the two children, Joshua Kenney as Miles and Louise Moseley as Flora. Both are veterans of last year’s Glyndebourne production and brought a sense of character, stage presence and vocal command that belied their teenage years. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a production of The Turn of the Screw being better cast than here, and the singers themselves were matched by vivid playing from the members of the Aurora Orchestra, with the musical drama evolving unwaveringly under Collon’s firm but clear direction. I’ve seen full theatre productions of this opera that were less atmospheric and dramatically focused than this ‘non-staging’ – its imaginative and thought-provoking presentation made for a different but highly successful way of performing opera in the concert hall.

****1