“The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Like Henry James’ novella which inspired Britten’s opera, the line from W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming unsettles the mind long after it is heard: and Britten’s keen setting of these words, central to his vision of The Turn of the Screw, ensure they revolve round your head for days afterwards. The Turn of the Screw is one of opera’s most frightening faces: a tale of possessed children, malevolent ghosts and well-intentioned yet powerless adults, all abandoned or trapped by design in a lonely, luxurious house where evil lurks unchallenged.

Natalya Romaniw (Governess) © Tristram Kenton
Natalya Romaniw (Governess)
© Tristram Kenton

Nevertheless, this opera is never quite as terrifying as James’ original novella, which builds its eeriness inside the reader’s imagination in an atmosphere of mounting hysteria, never quite defining what has actually happened, just darkening it enough to be tantalisingly horrific. To create his opera, Britten decided to embody James’ ghosts on stage, answering one of the story’s most fascinating questions with blunt immediacy. But what Britten sacrificed in mystery, he repaid in creativity. As a straight rendition of James, this opera is necessarily a failure: but as a creative response to James, Britten’s Turn of the Screw is a fascinating, disturbing masterpiece.

Jonathan Kent’s production, revived by Francesca Gilpin for the 2014 Glyndebourne Tour (dedicated to the late Sir George Christie), is as cunning as it is beautiful, thanks to Paul Brown’s brilliant design, sensitively incorporating projections. Over a revolving stage, an oversized plate glass window rotates throughout to suggest different rooms (and even the lake), while a gnarled, dead tree branch (perhaps symbolic of other things twisted and dead at Bly) moves us smoothly indoors and outdoors. Playing elegant games of perspective, Flora’s dollshouse in the drawing-room becomes Bly at a distance for the lake scene, heightening an overall sense of stylised surrealism which fits the work perfectly. Myfanwy Piper’s libretto is neurotically beautiful; living adults express themselves hesitantly, while the children seem old beyond their years, and the ghosts’ language is soaked in literary allusions and supernatural oddities. Leo McFall, conducting the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra, ratchets up the tension at every opportunity, particularly in the opening of Act II, whose beautiful, dark delirium feels fraught with meaning.

© Tristram Kenton
© Tristram Kenton

Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw gives her Governess maternal warmth, steely determination and a sense of moral conviction in her struggle. Romaniw sings with fluid clarity, particularly fine in her scenes with Miss Jessel, and her final moment with Miles, whom she comforts desperately: cleverly, her shadow appears to be strangling him, while her body clings to him. Anne Mason is a sturdy, believable Mrs Grose, absolutely coming into her own at her defiantly emphatic, “No, Mr Quint, I did not like your ways.” Britten had to curtail Mrs Grose’s character from James’ original: there is not much left in the role beyond the unwitting faithful retainer, but Mason gives Mrs Grose as much roundness as she can, with lovely physical detailing as she rests her aching bones in an armchair, or plays cat’s cradle with Flora.

Miranda Keys is sensational as Miss Jessel, who (in one of Britten’s great masterstrokes) gets an opportunity to answer Quint: whether with Quint, alone, or with the Governess, Keys sings magnificently, holding her body with wonderful tension to create the image of a walking spectre, deeply disturbing and affecting: for the first time, I felt pity for Miss Jessel.

Thomas Delgado-Little (Miles) and Anthony Gregory (Peter Quint) © Tristram Kenton
Thomas Delgado-Little (Miles) and Anthony Gregory (Peter Quint)
© Tristram Kenton

Thomas Delgado-Little is excellent as Miles, using a mixture of energetic animation and blank-faced stillness when the ghosts are in control. Delgado-Little’s haunting “Malo, Malo” is spectacular: his voice soars into the stellar top notes with gentle confidence, showing us all the deceptive simplicity of this unnerving tune, the most memorable of the whole opera. As Miles sings, we see a childish painting beside him showing Quint, holding Miles’ hand: the whole picture is of Miss Jessel and Quint either side of Miles and Flora, in a terrible parody of a child’s family portrait. A touching innocence remains in Miles until his final, desperate denunciation of “Peter Quint – you devil!”, made only more poignant by the Governess’ gradual fear of touching him. Louise Moseley’s Flora, by contrast, is full of frustration and pent-up rage from the start, apt to batter her much-dandled dolly when no one else is looking, and slipping from nurture to torture with psychotic alacrity. Moseley’s voice and characterisation, both deft and accurate, herald real talent; her performance, like Delgado-Little’s, is a pleasure to watch. Their blasphemous graveside duet was triumphantly creepy.

Anthony Gregory gives us a fiery, dandyish Peter Quint, full of lithe energy and immaculately tailored at all times, his gestures as sharp and clear-cut as his suit. I seem to recall the last Glyndebourne Quint had a rather more wolfish air (and possibly some vulpine sideburns): Gregory’s dapper, smooth-faced metrosexual-about-town may not be so obviously threatening, but he is utterly convincing and increasingly malignant as the opera whirls towards its terrible close, when his hunger for Miles’s soul becomes palpable, Britten closing with a final, malevolent heartbeat over the dead and undead alike.