Garsington Opera’s fine 2019 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw receives a welcome first revival. The large semi-opaque windows of Christopher Oram’s set serve well for shadowy sightings of Bly’s local revenants. There is a patch of the lake which Flora christens the “dead sea”. Miss Jessel walks on or in water, and at the close the defeated Governess exits by the same method, although the Victorian hooped skirts of both characters are hardly bathing garb. We are in a country estate at Garsington, with a lake nearby, but apparitions were confined to the auditorium. Not that any would have been visible through the interval rainstorm; the ceremony of innocence was drowned. 

Verity Wingate (Governess) and Robert Murray (Prologue)
© Julian Guidera

Louisa Muller directed the production in 2019 and returned to revive it here, preserving the ambiguity – did the Governess see these things or imagine them? Are we viewing her fantasies, like Macbeth’s dagger “proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain”, driven by a frustrated attraction to the employer she must never contact? Muller’s production bears both interpretations, as it should. She has a sure touch for an eerie detail. In the Prologue the guardian’s intimate stroking of the face of the woman to whom he has just subcontracted the raising of his “poor little things”, is the subtlest of transgressions. It is a chilling moment when Miles repeats the exact gesture in Act 2, still more unsettling in the combative context their relationship has assumed.

Ben Fletcher (Miles) and Robert Murray (Peter Quint)
© Julian Guidera

The new cast is a good one. Robert Murray’s Prologue unfolds the “curious story… written in faded ink” as little more than an old tale. Then that touching of the face hints at his transformation into the tale’s sinister protagonist, and Peter Quint’s first melismatic call to Miles is a seductive summons in Murray’s mellifluous tenor. As Miles, Ben Fletcher acts with the right balance of innocence and the corruption, and sings with great skill. His sister Flora was no less ably sung and acted by Maia Greaves. Britten famously wrote superbly for children’s voices, but he never wrote down to them, and gives them substantial parts with plenty of musical challenges to negotiate, and both stage siblings impressed.

Maia Greaves (Flora) and Ben Fletcher (Miles)
© Julian Guidera

The three adult female characters sang well as individuals and together – with just six singers, ensembles are crucial to vocal variety as well as to dramatic interactions. As Mrs Grose, Carolyn Holt replaced the unwell Susan Bickley, and although she looks rather youthful for the “old housekeeper”, the voice is certainly mature enough to cope with the role’s demands. Her deferential acting underlined the often neglected class-bound aspect of this work. Revealing the former Quint-Jessel relationship, she sounded less shocked at “he had his will, morning and night” than at “and she a lady, so far above him.” 

Verity Wingate (Governess), Maia Greaves (Flora), Carolyn Holt (Mrs Grose) and Ben Fletcher (Miles)
© Julian Guidera

As Miss Jessel Helena Dix perhaps stole the purely vocal honours, her lustrous voice well able to convey the painful reminiscence of the schoolroom; Jessel’s “Here my tragedy began” was an affecting moment. Verity Wingate’s Governess dominated proceedings. She has the range of colour to convey hope, anxiety and terror, and the histrionic talent to keep us guessing whether we are witnessing real peril, hysteria or both. Her haunted “Lost in my labyrinth” revealed a creature trapped with nowhere to turn, the opera essentially her tragedy.

Helena Dix (Miss Jessel)
© Alice Pennefather

The thirteen players of the Philharmonia excelled both as chamber orchestra and fine soloists. Whether it was the perfect woodwind evocation of the pastoral start to Scene 5 of Act 1, or the dazzling extended piano solo in Act 2, all instrumental demands were met. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth gave room for those solos, balanced the tuttis well, and kept the tightly integrated structure moving, never letting it sound like a theme and variations with voices. Unlike Britten, whose conducting could hurry through the Governess’ devastated final “Malo, malo”, embarrassed that he had written a Puccini dénouement, Wigglesworth allowed just the right amount of space for its catharsis to register.