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SACD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Turn of the Screw

  • Governess - Sally Matthews
  • Mrs. Grose - Catherine Wyn-Rogers
  • Peter Quint/Prologue - Andrew Kennedy
  • Miles - Michael Clayton-Jolly
  • Flora - Lucy Hall
  • Miss Jessel - Katherine Broderick
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Farnes
Recorded Live at Barbican Hall, London - April 16 & 18, 2013
LSO Live SACD LSO0749 111m Hybrid Multichannel
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This is an unusual recording of Britten's The Turn of the Screw in that it is a live presentation of a concert performance of the opera. Actually, it was derived from two separate performances in April, 2013, though any editing or splicing is unnoticeable. I have reviewed two other recordings of this work here in the last decade or so: the Richard Hickox-led version on an Opus Arte DVD (BBC/Opus Arte OA0907D) in 2005 and the 2003 Steuart Bedford account on an Arthaus Musik DVD (100198). Both of these of course are videos, and fine ones at that, though I favored the Hickox recording over the Bedford.

This new effort on LSO Live makes comparisons with such competition difficult since it is an audio-only version. That said, I will add out that one can still discern that in many ways it may well be the most intense account of the opera, at least among recent recordings. Intense, yes, and quite powerfully dramatic, but many will still consider Britten's own 1955 recording of the work to be the benchmark, despite its mono sound. This LSO Live SACD has quite excellent sound and features both a strong cast and fine orchestral playing. Sally Matthews as the Governess has a great sense for drama as she imparts a strong intensity throughout, but sometimes at the expense of diction, as a word here and there seems to get muddled amid moments of strong emotion. That minor weakness aside, her performance is excellent. The Miss Jessel of Katherine Broderick is also splendid, and Andrew Kennedy makes a menacing and quite ghostly Peter Quint. The rest of the cast is fine and Richard Farnes leads the London Symphony Orchestra (scaled down to chamber size for this work) with a mastery at achieving a sense of the eerie, not least in those seemingly innocent child-like passages that cloak some threat or danger. Farnes conducts the Theme and Fifteen Variations (preludes between scenes) with a knowing hand, drawing fine performances from his orchestra.

Many consider this opera, based on the Henry James novella of the same name, to be among the finest Britten composed, and I won't challenge that view, but must mention the company it shares: Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1961) and Owen Wingrave (1970). Britten was surely one of the greatest composers of opera from the mid-20th century, and if you're interested in his operas, this new effort on the LSO Live label should be of great interest.

Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings