How do you tell a ghost story in broad daylight? That’s the challenge that faced Louisa Muller directing Britten’s operatic chiller The Turn of the Screw for Garsington. It’s a curious story to set in a glass-sided theatre flooded with sunshine in a performance starting at half past six in the evening. But Muller overcomes this obstacle with an exceptional staging – superbly sung – that draws the audience into the crepuscular shadows of Bly House, twisting the tension as the screw is turned.

Sophie Bevan (Governess), Leo Jemison (Miles) and Ed Lyon (Peter Quint) © Johan Persson
Sophie Bevan (Governess), Leo Jemison (Miles) and Ed Lyon (Peter Quint)
© Johan Persson

Tim Sheader faced a similar kind of challenge when directing for English National Opera on location in Regent’s Park’s Open Air Theatre last summer, surmounting it by adopting an exterior setting based around the ruins of a greenhouse. Muller inverts that situation, drawing us into a glassy interior. She plays the opera entirely straight, set at the end of the 19th century, in the period of Henry James’ novella. Christopher Oram’s towering set immediately establishes the tone, rusty iron window frames that pivot, natural sunlight casting shadows through their frosted panes. One barely notices the first ghostly appearance of Peter Quint, his face seeping into focus like ink bleeding into blotting paper. A channel of water runs alongside the front of the stage, bursting through the paved floor in Act 2 to form a stagnant pool. It’s here, as night shrouds the Wormsley Estate, that Muller and lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth ratchet up the chill factor with shadows, reflections and candlelight.

Ed Lyon (Peter Quint) © Johan Persson
Ed Lyon (Peter Quint)
© Johan Persson

The children are played entirely as innocents, initially at least. When Miles sings to the Governess “I am bad”, nobody could believe the butter-wouldn’t-melt purity of excellent treble Leo Jemison. But when Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, describes how Quint was “free with everyone”, her meaning is entirely clear, the grip that the ghosts hold over the children becoming apparent, mainly through Adrianna Forbes-Dorant’s Flora. We see her jealousy when spying on Miles and the Governess playing and hints of malice creep in as she sings her dolly a lullaby, drowning it in the water channel. Miles seems more withdrawn, although one senses that Quint’s appearances to him are a nightly ritual.

Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (Flora) and Sophie Bevan (Governess) © John Snelling
Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (Flora) and Sophie Bevan (Governess)
© John Snelling

Sophie Bevan sang exquisitely, with just enough power and excellent diction. Her Governess is far from a hysterical woman, but the horror of the situation freezes her, fainting or rooting her to the spot in the terrific confrontation between Quint and Jessel. Tenor Ed Lyon sang an eloquent Prologue and was a properly scary Quint, aggressive in his melismatic chants and in his urging Miles to steal the warning letter the Governess has written to the children’s guardian. Katherine Broderick’s Miss Jessel was superb, her Wagnerian soprano slicing through the auditorium with thrilling power. These malevolent ghosts held us all in their grasp. After a few early wobbles, Kathleen Wilkinson’s sturdy Mrs Grose was the perfect foil to Bevan’s anguished Governess.

Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (Flora), Kathleen Wilkinson (Mrs Grose) and Sophie Bevan (Governess) © John Snelling
Adrianna Forbes-Dorant (Flora), Kathleen Wilkinson (Mrs Grose) and Sophie Bevan (Governess)
© John Snelling

From the pugnacious treatment of the nursery rhymes to the sinister cor anglais coiling its tendrils around Miles melancholy “Malo” theme, Richard Farnes drew excellent playing from the 13 members of the Garsington Opera Orchestra, a scintillating account where every note of Britten’s most compactly composed opera was pricked with precision. An evening of ghostly goosebump tingles.

*****