La Scala’s new production of The Turn of the Screw marks the first time Britten’s unsettling opera based on Henry James’ gothic tale has reached its stage. It had earlier been performed at the Scala Piccolo, in 1969, in Italian. While the chamber opera might benefit from a slightly smaller theatre, Christoph Eschenbach offered a richly sonorous rendering of this score in his La Scala debut.

The lighter, magical passages of Britten’s score, of which there are many, shimmered luxuriously, providing a strong counterbalance to the dark forces that are inescapably at work. Such a musical reading complements the stage direction of Kasper Holten, which focuses on the Governess’ mental decay as the prime and gradual shaper of malevolence. It is she, more than Miles and Flora (the children in her care), who becomes entangled with the ghostly traces of her predecessors Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. The production is not shrouded in misty uncertainties but offers crisply suggestive gestures, via stellar stagecraft.

Set in a large modern room, featuring a black piano against a backdrop of a high, white-curtained wall, the Prologue is coolly and commandingly sung by Ian Bostridge. A woman’s corpse hanging above the piano by a rope stains the pristine image, and it gradually becomes clear that Bostridge here embodies the uncle who enlisted the governess (whose fate is clear) to care for his wards. We are conscious of a performance unfolding, one that is likely cyclical. As the action shifts to the governess’s story, Steffen Aarfing’s sophisticated designs are set in motion, with movable front cloths that cinematically conceal the room of the Prologue and redirect the viewer to a small visible corner square, in which the Governess anxiously approaches Bly to take up her new position. The vast canvas around her becomes a projection space, upon which the drawn image of a woman with a hand upon her shoulder, then a priest behind her, suggest what motivates the Governess’s behaviour: her romantic interest in the children’s uncle, and her repressive religious orientation. As the scenes unfold, the set reveals itself to be geometrically divided into a tower of three claustrophobically-small cubed rooms to the right of the large salon, under which is a curiously empty space. Framing projections are often marked in chalk – semi-permanent and easily overridden by other ideas.

Miah Persson presents a compelling Governess, whose ringing, precise interpretation and luminous expression contain the hint of zealotry that will lead her to inhabit the dark secret revealed by Mrs Grose. In the latter role, Jennifer Johnston offers an ample, opulent tone that sometimes dwarfs its surroundings while offering a pressing plea for help to which the Governess is keen to respond. As Flora, the still teenaged Louise Moseley projects well and convincingly acts the part of the young girl aching for genuine attention. The role of Miles is double cast: on opening night, Sebastian Exall offered a spirited and emphatically naïve rendering of the young boy while Lucas Pinto (16 Sep) was more frail in all respects, but more reliably secure of pitch. Assuming the role of Peter Quint, Bostridge remained eerily distant, reinforcing the notion that he’s largely an imaginative projection of the Governess. As staged, he scarcely connects with the children, as is the case with Allison Cook’s Miss Jessel, an aptly darker hued counterpart to Persson’s Governess.

In Holten’s staging, the Governess discovers Miss Jessel after Miles’ disconcerting musings over the Latin word malo. She metaphorically and literally descends beneath the salon/lake surface into a barren white space that contains her dishevelled double while Flora tries fruitlessly to garner her attention. When Act I draws to a close, Quint’s vocalise sounds offstage, but he then appears and strangely embraces the Governess while Miss Jessel is positioned directly underneath. Black streaks now mark the white backdrop, and the set becomes increasingly layered with dark ideas and images through to the end.

Act II opens with a theatrical coup, as the geographically unfixed duet between Jessel and Quint is staged as a dream/nightmare of the Governess. In cinematically direct fashion, Jessel and Quint slip into the Governess’ bed (rendered vertically) on either side of her while she sleeps, in a brightly-lit centre window within the set, framed with chalkboard-like etchings. The Governess’ urge to exorcise Miles ultimately overwhelms him, while Flora is understandably eager to escape a situation that is anything but nurturing. Miles’ parting words “You devil” are aimed squarely at the Governess, while Quint’s farewell sounded strangely sincere.