The Conservatorium Theatre’s crystal-clear acoustic, together with riveting singing and acting from Opera Queensland singers and precise and thrilling music from members of the Queensland Orchestra under David Stanhope come together brilliantly to make Turn of the Screw a memorable production. Adding to the magic are Stephen Curtis’s stunning sets and costumes, Nigel Levings’ evocative lighting and Roger Press’s disciplined direction of Neil Armfield’s original Australian Opera production (dating back to 1987) which Brisbane is now fortunate enough to see.
Benjamin Britten’s music and his concept of Henry James’ psychological novel provide challenges to audiences more comfortable with the romantic and classical repertoire, but the rewards are many. Of particular strength in the opera is Myfanwy Piper’s English libretto, especially in its poetic representation of the ghosts’ thoughts.
My main objection to Britten’s approach is that he reifies the ghosts rather than permitting alternative interpretations. Like Macbeth’s witches, the spirits have a scene of their own, undermining any reading, more appropriate to our times, that they are creatures of the governess’s mind. (Even the theatre’s most famous ghost, that of the late king in Hamlet, allows the interpretation that it is an imagining of the Prince.) The opera’s instrumentation is most effective and impressive, including only five strings but a range of interesting percussion and the celeste and harp, plus several woodwinds including exotic-sounding bass clarinet and bassoon. Their use in evoking the unsettling strangeness of the setting is quite intriguing, and their execution top rate, with much impressive solo work.
Of the small ensemble of singers, Gaynor Morgan is superb as the governess, beautifully characterising in voice and motion all the experiences and emotions she endures as she approaches her strangely circumscribed task and is confronted by the weird apparitions which manifest unimaginable evils.
Excellent as the two children are Kate Miller-Heidke as Flora and 13-year-old Andrew Justo as Miles. (The role of Miles is doubled on alternate nights by Andrew Whitmore.) They each capture with great subtlety the sense of abused innocence, and sing with clarity and good diction. They way in which the children can switch in an instant from innocence to the sense of demonic possession is quite chilling. The perverse transformation in their singing of the church canticle “Benedicite” is most effective, as are the depths they convey in their singing of nursery rhymes and even their Latin and geography homework.
Irene Waugh as the housekeeper Mrs Grose and Rosemarie Arthars as the ghost of the former governess Miss Jessel convey their contrasting characters with confidence. Michael Martin is particularly memorable through his plaintive singing as the insidious ghost of the disgraced valet Peter Quint.
The frequently-changed sets add to the general eeriness with their depiction of interiors and exterior settings in the grand but decaying ancestral home. Particularly striking are the brick walls with espaliered figs and topped with odd ornaments.
There is much in this opera that frightens and thrills, long remaining in memory as an unusual and unsettling experience.