As with any good ghost story, The Turn of the Screw is replete with ambiguity, and the best productions of Britten’s operatic adaptation of Henry James pose more questions than they answer. That is most definitely the case with Immo Karaman’s psychologically probing new staging for Staatsoper Hannover, filmed in March and launched via streaming this month. Outwardly, his interpretation seems to play with standard tropes of Gothic horror. Thilo Ullrich and Fabian Posca’s set and costume designs, evocatively lit by Susanne Reinhardt, are almost entirely monochrome – indeed, at the start I was fooled into thinking it had been filmed in black and white. Despite make-up and wigs recalling silent-era horror movies, even the later Munsters TV series (Mrs Grose bearing Lily Munster’s white-streaked hair; Miles with shades of Eddy, if not the werewolf aspect...), the setting is contemporary – the Governess dresses as a modern Goth, and Flora plays her ‘cat’s cradle’ game on her phone. There’s also a flavour of Hitchcock when animated birds invade the Governess’ peace in the Tower Scene.

Sarah Brady (Governess) and Jakob Geppert (Miles)
© Sandra Then

There’s an abstraction about the general setting, though, that confounds the boundaries between reality and unreality. A cramped outline of a house confines the acting area and seems to represent Bly as a claustrophobic place without an outside world. A smattering of pieces of furniture come and go as required, but in general the conception allows us to focus on the workings of the characters’ minds. The ghosts themselves are heard more than they are seen, Quint mostly in shadow, Miss Jessel first under a sheet and subsequently faceless, and the production is effective in its suggestive use of shadow, projection and silhouette to convey the sense of menace.

Sarah Brady (Governess)
© Sandra Then

Among a number of perceptive directorial touches, the Governess appears to begin identifying with Miss Jessel, falling under Quint’s spell herself and mimicking the look of her predecessor; and there’s something dodgy about the housekeeper Mrs Grose, too, as it is she who intercepts the crucial letter to the children’s guardian after Miles has taken it. Miles himself realises he has become the man of the house and the Piano Scene depicts him taking charge with a conductor’s baton rather than at the keyboard. But ultimately it is the Governess’ story and the production very much tells it from her standpoint – is it her innocence that is ‘drowned’, corrupted by the ghosts and the inhabitants of Bly, or is it all in her subconscious imagination? The final scene poses its own questions.

Jakob Geppert (Miles) and Sarah Brady (Governess)
© Sandra Then

Like so many German houses, Hannover has the luxury of a resident ensemble of salaried singers who furnished almost the whole cast for this production. It is lucky, too, to have found a singer as good as soprano Sarah Brady, who joined the company this season after a stint in the opera studio and ensemble in Basel: her assumption of the role of the Governess is little short of career-defining, revealing a warm, rounded timbre, nigh on perfect diction and a convincing stage presence. Another recent recruit is tenor Sunnyboy Dladla, whose slightly quivery voice gave Peter Quint an even more sinister edge than usual. Miles was taken by a treble from the junior section of Chorakademie Dortmund, Jakob Geppert – a highly accomplished young singer and actor who ably conveyed the sense of a child with the mind of an adult. Monica Walerowicz (Mrs Grose), Weronika Rabek (Flora), Barno Ismatullaeva (Miss Jessel) and Marco Lee (Prologue) completed the excellent cast. Conductor Stephan Zilias and his instrumental ensemble from the Niedersächsisches Staatsorchester Hannover together gave real punch to the score, bringing plenty of life to what is arguably one of Britten’s tautest and most imaginative creations.

This performance was reviewed from the Staatsoper Hannover video stream (repeated 28th April and 15th May)