November 7th, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

It cannot be doubted that Benjamin Britten is a very English composer, and his choice of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw the subject for an opera in many ways confirms this. Very little concrete action actually takes place in James’s tale – most of the time is spent in the head of the governess as she grapples with the reality of what she may or may not be seeing. In the end, the book prompts us to question whether the children were actually haunted by ghosts or whether the governess herself was just going off the rails in her seclusion.

I was surprised, then, to find that the characters of Peter Quint (Anthony Gregory) and Miss Jessel (Miranda Keys) to be incredibly present in Britten’s operatic adaption. One is never quite sure whether they’re working together or whether the malevolent presence of one draws the other along as well, but their on-stage characters are quite compelling. Peter Quint, in particular, is portrayed  as an evil woodland spirit as he sings of being:

“all things strange and bold,
The riderless horse Snorting,
stamping on the hard sea sand…”

Gregory’s performance was easily the stand-out in a fantastic cast, with a strong, flexible voice complemented by a striking stage presence. His and Miss Jessel gradual encroach on the peace of Bly was highlighted by the twisted form of a large dead tree, initially suspended above the stage, then coming to rest in the background in the second act. Though the governess (Natalya Romaniw) and Mrs Grose (Anne Mason) don’t interact with this prop, the ghosts twist and turn around it, suggesting an other-worldliness to the otherwise sparse scenery.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the necessity of casting Miles (Thomas Delago-Little) and particularly Flora (Louise Moseley) somewhat older than the age suggested, and found Moseley’s childlike playing with her doll somewhat unconvincing considering that she was almost as tall as Mrs Grose! However, both were excellent actors, taking effortless command of the stage and capturing the carefree of innocent play beautifully. Moseley’s voice is rich and sure, and I hope she continues to shine on the stage! Delago-Little dealt with the challenging part of Miles incredibly well, and despite some erring on high notes was suitably eerie in his trance-like renditions of the Malo song.

Mason’s portrayal of Mrs Grose was a strong one that seemed at odds with some of the characters more unsure lines. However, her interaction with Romaniw constantly carried the narrative forwards, and supported by the expressive chamber orchestra under the direction of Leo McFall, deftly captured the gradually mounting hysteria. Though her voice was sometimes a little lost in the bigger ensemble, Romaniw is a compelling actress, and was particularly stunning in the schoolroom scene confronting both Miss Jessel and her own fears.