Experiencing opera in the open air can be an interesting departure from the norm and offers unique opportunities, but also challenges, most notably on the acoustic front. When done well though, an opera in such settings can be transformed as was English National Opera’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Clearly some thought had gone into it, and even though the home counties’ commuters among the audience – undoubtedly a large percentage – no doubt groaned at the news that the start time had been pushed back to 8pm, the reasons for doing so involving the declining natural light and its correlating effect on the production seemed entirely sound.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Peter Quint), Anita Watson (Governess), Daniel Alexander Sidhom, Elen Willmer © Johan Persson
Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Peter Quint), Anita Watson (Governess), Daniel Alexander Sidhom, Elen Willmer
© Johan Persson

The centre of the set is a dilapidated skeleton of a two-storeyed house; the cast wander in and out, and at times the framework resemble the bars of a prison, clever visual devices to develop the feeling of trapped claustrophobia that the opera engenders. Around it, a series of wooden walkways allow pathway through thick overgrowth. A piano sits, almost casually discarded in the long grass. There’s a powerful feeling of desolation, a suggestion that the household is just hanging on after events of catastrophic impact. Director Timothy Sheader’s grip on Britten’s opera is extremely strong, bringing a sensitivity that embraced the ghoulish supernatural element of the piece, the deep, flawed humanity of the Governess and the sinister sexual insinuations of Quint’s relationship with Miles.

Elen Willmer (Flora) © Johan Persson
Elen Willmer (Flora)
© Johan Persson

It helped that the roles of the children were assumed by two extremely capable young singers. The complexity and depth that Daniel Alexander Sidhom brought to Miles was most impressive, flickering between the angelic and the demonic, but largely lurking in a middle-ground of a damaged and traumatised psyche. His capabilities suggest a bright career on the stage lies ahead; vocally too he was on good form, displaying a clear expressive instrument with fine articulation.  Elen Wilmer, too, made a compelling Flora, a characterisation of smiles and sideward glances; in some ways she was more disconcerting than her brother with sinister imprecations to her dolly to sleep, and a frightening moment as she sailed her little toy boat in the lake.

Janis Kelly (Mrs Grose) © Johan Persson
Janis Kelly (Mrs Grose)
© Johan Persson

The adults, not to be outdone by their younger counterparts, gave a universally strong showing, making it a very strong ensemble production. Janis Kelly’s Mrs Grose was in many ways the warm heart of the production, striving desperately against the odds to regain and retain a balanced domestic environment. Kelly, having sung the other three female roles over her career, brought tremendous experience to Mrs Grose, a keen diction and secure top bolstering her strong stage presence. Elin Pritchard was a delightfully dingy Miss Jessel, stalking along with a mad glint in her eye, a figure driven mad by abuse and a desire for companionship. The anguish as her higher register soared out “Ah! Quint, Quint, do you forget?” went straight to the gut. Her replacement, Anita Watson’s Governess, had less of a chill in the voice, bustling along with a maternal cheeriness that we saw steadily replaced by a growing fear; Watson’s diction wasn’t always entirely precise, but she inhabited the character flawlessly.

Anita Watson (The Governess) and Elin Pritchard (Miss Jessel) © Johan Persson
Anita Watson (The Governess) and Elin Pritchard (Miss Jessel)
© Johan Persson

And the real villain of the piece? Elgan Llŷr Thomas’ Peter Quint, chalk-faced and rusty-haired, kicked the fear factor up several gears. Perhaps it was the eerie stillness of his movements. Perhaps the way his glacial voice erupted in demented passion, bursts of savagery that were perfectly targeted and unpleasant to witness. Whatever the reason, Thomas made the role his own.

William Morgan’s Prologue was a stridently ominous hint of what was to come. In a semi-opaque section of the house, Toby Purser led a chamber-sized section of ENO Orchestra’s senior players in a pinpoint reading of the score, spot on in tempi and mood. Even the amplification was subtle enough to avoid any irritation. The chances of finding a better production of this any time soon are very slim indeed. Malo Malo Malo…

*****