Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw is a highly charged, enigmatic rendition of the original dark tale Henry James published in instalments in Collier’s Weekly magazine in 1898. Both stories tell the tale of children in the detrimental clutches of paedophilia, looks for a definition of innocence, the fetters of loyalty and position. Britten’s advantage is that he adds to his opera’s mere seven characters' narrative the element of music – the great emotional spur – and poses complex questions in the mix of tonality and dissonance that were to become his musical signature. Twelve players drawn from the house’s fine Philharmonia orchestra make up the chamber ensemble under Constantin Trinks’ self-confident baton. Readers should get one thing straight from the start, however: just as in the James story, there are no definitive answers here. This opera also thrives on leaving “unanswered questions” as just that.

Layla Claire (The Governess) © Monika Rittershaus
Layla Claire (The Governess)
© Monika Rittershaus

The tale starts as a narrator (Pavel Breslik) brings the audience up to speed on the cast of characters and what has transpired to date. On the death of his brother, a well-situated Londoner − referred to as the Guardian – has recently hired a new Governess (Layla Claire) to instruct the two orphans his brother left behind. But there’s an unusual stipulation: the Guardian never wants to be bothered, and the Governess must take full responsibility for the whole affair. Not the best deal, really, except perhaps to someone hoping to win the heart of a well-to-do gentleman. Indeed, the Zurich production underscores that notion; not long into the opera, the governess will sing of how she wishes the Guardian could know “how well I do his bidding”. But despite that impossibility, she accepts the job early on, and travels down to Bly to meet her charges.

The name of the town where the children live is telling, at least for a Zurich audience. “Blei” is the German word for the heavy metal “lead” and a foreign word that Britten most likely knew. It comes as no surprise that the story in Bly turns weighty. For what initially seems a delightful homestead turns out to be anything but. Within short order, the Governess hears strange footsteps outside her door, and crying in the night. The boy in her charge, Miles (Tom Deazley), is described by the housekeeper Mrs Grose (Hedwig Fassbinder) as “an angel”, but reveals in his haunting aria, “Malo”, that he has been “a naughty boy”. It turns out that at the hands of the once employed Lord’s valet, Peter Quint (Pavol Breslik), both the Governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen) and the two children came to no good. “Bad things” were happening to them, and many of us can interpret that intimation the same way. 

But intimation it remains; we are never given a full account. Mrs Grose does tell − once the Governess has seen Quint’s apparition twice − that the impudent and depraved valet (since deceased) “had his will, morning and night”. And it’s precisely that kind of enigma that fires all the subsequent action where, as W.B. Yeats was to write, “ the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. Miles is dismissed from school; he seems entranced and beholden by Quint’s ghost; and the erstwhile Miss Jessel exercises an intoxicating spell over his younger sister, Flora (Tabitha Tucker). 

Even before the first of the eight scenes in Act II, a haunting string vibrato heralds a short interlude, but gives way to the broad swathe of church bells that mitigate the strings’ edginess. Meanwhile, things in the household have gone from bad to worse. Britten sets in chimes to boost the sense of otherworldly malaise. The vocal, highly agitated parry between the arguing Quint and Miss Jessel takes place on a sofa centre stage; the stone like Governess is planted between the two “ghosts”, making her the human “wedge” that comes between them and the children. By the time the Governess sings again, confiding in Mrs Grose, she is convinced of the children “telling horrors”, and that they “are with the others”. No wonder the Hollywood blockbuster (think: Nicole Kidman) triggered by the same dark tale took The Others as its title.

Slovakian tenor Pavel Breslik sings the role of the quintessential evildoer, Peter Quint, masterfully. His silver tonality is much like that of his predecessor, Peter Pears, the creator of the role, and is striking for its use of sharp emphasis and enunciation. Encouraging the young Miles to steal a letter the Governess intends to send the children’s guardian, Quint urges Miles that its “easy to take, easy to take”, with the final “k” like a cross between a snake’s hiss and a chainsaw. Two words alone, just four notes, and I had to put my hand to my throat, cringing. 

His consort, the slithery, negligee-clad Miss Jessel (Giselle Allen), had a demanding vocal role that also requires she be very physical. When all hell breaks loose, she has the dubious pleasure of performing a sort of stage fellatio on Quint, her partner in crime. At the same time, Mrs Grose (Hedwig Fassbender), tries to placate Flora’s (Tabitha Tucker) antagonism to the Governess. Fassbender builds up a highly convincing character in a grandmother-like role, while the young Flora sometimes had to fight to have her voice carry over the orchestra. The scene where she languishes by the river to get away from the stifling house was the young singer’s golden moment: spiteful and contrary, her voice in a lower register, she projected well and showed acting skills well beyond her years.

Giselle Allen (Miss Jessel), Layla Claire (The Governess) and Pavol Breslik (Quint) © Monika Rittershaus
Giselle Allen (Miss Jessel), Layla Claire (The Governess) and Pavol Breslik (Quint)
© Monika Rittershaus

Wolfgang Gussmann’s revival of Willy Decker's staging is marvellous. Set in the 1950s, a configuration of stark walls in a plain offset square rotated on its axis almost throughout the performance. Mirroring “the turn of the screw”, the set was always turning on itself: opening up, changing, contracting. A single figure that had been standing in a hidden corner would suddenly be revealed. Further, the huge openings with their Edward Hopper-like “window surfaces” alternating against a black backdrop “framed” the characters’ postures and moods handsomely. And Hans-Rudolf Kunz’s lighting was nothing less than superb; it played within the realms of the music like another finely-tuned instrument. 

Hedwig Fassbinder was in total command of her voice and character as Mrs Grose. But the highest accolades for the performance have to go to the Canadian soprano Layla Claire, who debuted the role of the Governess in her Zurich repertoire. Nuanced in colour and timbre, Claire’s voice was as clear as a bell at whatever volume the pathos required, and the way she imparted her character’s moral horror at the untenable situation, too, just enraptured the Zurich audience. Her Governess eventually suffocates the very boy she means to protect but, after all, who would not be overwrought at having been visited by two purportedly and highly creepy “dead” who just happen to be hanging around your workplace, and threatening your clients? It's a tough call, as is whether the Governess was a victim or an oppressor in the end? Don’t ask; you’re really not meant to know. 

****1