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DVD Review

Benjamin Britten

The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54

  • Quint - Mark Padmore
  • Governess - Lisa Milne
  • Miss Jessel - Catrin Wyn Davies
  • Mrs. Grose - Diana Montague
  • Miles - Nicholas Kirby Johnson
  • Flora - Caroline Wise
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Television Director - Katie Mitchell
BBC Opus Arte DVD OA0907D LPCM Stereo Dolby Digital Anamorphic Widescreen
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If there is one thing in his operas that Benjamin Britten was masterful at creating, it was atmosphere appropriate to the subject matter at hand. Right off, I can think of the imaginative sound world of the fantasy- and fairytale-like opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream, as prime evidence of this assertion. But then, there is also this work, The Turn of the Screw, a ghostly psychological opera brimming with hauntings and otherworldly threats, threats that convey a horrible sense the individual is powerless to defeat their realization.

In this production the viewer is given an imaginative motion-picture treatment of the opera, so that scene changes are generally seamless, and characters can sing in the background while on screen they merely ponder or deliberate. It all adds to the spooky, surreal atmosphere and to your sense of apprehension. This is the second recent release of The Turn of the Screw, the first being the more conventional Stuart Bedford-led performance on Arthaus Musik, which I reviewed in 2003 (Arthaus 100198). The reader may want to consult that notice for comparison. That DVD featured a fine production with rather standard visual treatment and good singing, but this one is decidedly better, both from the visual and performance aspects.

Richard Hickox conducts with an almost unerring sense for drama and for the correct tempo. Lisa Milne as the Governess is brilliant, and both the children here, Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles and Caroline Wise as Flora, are excellent. The other cast members are convincing, at the very least. But I must point out to the more tradition-minded listeners, i.e., those favoring Verdi and Puccini and the like, this opera won't be for everyone: Britten's writing is often austere and his expressive language, though hardly atonal or avant garde, is cold and ethereal, quite appropriate, though, for the eerie subject matter here, but unyieldingly anti-Romantic in its scaled-down scoring, absence of easily-graspable melodies and seemingly obsessive focus on upper-register sonorities, both vocally and instrumentally.

But keep in mind that these qualities are all to the good in this powerful, twisted opera: the final scene here is utterly riveting, Britten's music and drama brought off as effectively as one could ever wish. If you're as drawn in as I was, you'll shiver as the climax approaches. The sound reproduction is vivid and full throughout, too. In the end, one must rank this as one of the finest operatic productions on DVD. Don't be deterred by the lack of big names in the cast or the somewhat cold expressive language of the composer. This is a brilliant production that merits the highest recommendations.

Copyright © 2005, Robert Cummings