The Turn of the Screw is a work I’ve lived with for a number of years. Since seeing the English National Opera production as a student I’ve been obsessed, seeing numerous other productions on stage and screen. It’s also one of the few operas which I’ve performed myself, and the one of which I have the fondest memories. I know it inside out and backwards, and I have so many of my own ideas about what makes a perfect performance, both dramatically and musically.

Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles) and Emma Bell (Governess) © Monika Ritterhaus
Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles) and Emma Bell (Governess)
© Monika Ritterhaus

So what do you say when a production comes along which takes every idea you’ve ever had about a work, chews it up and spits it back out at you? That’s just what Claus Guth’s production for the Staatsoper Berlin does. This production shocked me, horrified me, and then won me over completely. If you love this piece and have any opportunity to see this production stop reading now; reading this review will only lessen the effect.

The opening scene is unassuming enough, with high red walls presenting a room in a luxurious home. But once the setting moves to Bly things change. Miles is played by a counter-tenor, Mrs Grose is not the unassuming doddery old housekeeper, but a boozy gossip with some hidden agenda, and when the ghosts should appear there is nothing to be seen. It’s clear that this “family” has had a very troubled past, no normal children are this disturbing, and their sexual play is more blatant than latent, but there’s no doubt left in this production: there are no ghosts. The Governess is not just a bit disturbed, but completely insane, transferring her feelings for the uncle onto the pre-pubescent Miles, bordering on sexual abuse before strangling him to death and giggling into her wine as she converses with his corpse.

The stage revolves to produce four different rooms and a corridor between, all the same high, richly red walls with large doors and windows. Nothing takes place outside of the house, no-one leaves. It’s intensely claustrophobic, and yet unsettling, as every room seems unfamiliar, subtly different to the one before.

Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles) and Emma Bell (Governess) © Monika Ritterhaus
Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles) and Emma Bell (Governess)
© Monika Ritterhaus

The children, Miles (Thomas Lichtenecker) and Flora (Sónia Grané) are doubled by child actors, enhancing the Chuckie-doll quality which the singers themselves already give the role. Lichtenecker has a very pure countertenor voice, as similar to a boy soprano as you can get, there are a few passages where I missed the slight imprecision of the treble voice, but the eerie maturity Lichtenecker brings is vital for this production, and I’m not sure many parents would be happy seeing their 12-year old doing many of the things which happened on the stage. Beside them Marie McLaughlin, performing with two black eyes having suffered a fall in the dress rehearsal, was an excellent Mrs Grose, lending her character her own Scottish inflection to excellent effect.

Richard Croft sung a very understated prologue but I hesitate to judge his performance as Quint, or Anna Samuil’s performance of Miss Jessel as the two never appeared on stage and had their performances relayed over loudspeakers into the auditorium. That said, the contrast in sound between their sound and that of the singers on stage, added to the remove they have, and their lack of realness, but, in purely musical terms, the sound suffers.

Sónja Grané (Flora) and Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles) © Monika Ritterhaus
Sónja Grané (Flora) and Thomas Lichtenecker (Miles)
© Monika Ritterhaus

At the centre of this, almost never leaving the stage, was Emma Bell as the Governess. She has a stunning voice, and really brings her character to life. Her complete and utter descent into madness requires her to sing this role differently to how one would in any other production, and she falls into her role embodying it in sound and delivery.

There’s so much to dislike about this production. There’s no boy soprano, there’s none of the ambiguity which is one of the work’s hallmarks, and having the ghosts sing off-stage has negative implications for the sound. But by the end of the performance I didn’t care about any of these things. The Governess’ descent into madness, culminating in her murdering Miles was heart-breaking and left me totally aghast. In many ways most productions of The Turn of the Screw are just variations on a theme, but this one is something new. This changes everything.

****1