The night of Opera North’s performance of The Turn of the Screw at The Lowry was a dark and stormy one, fitting weather conditions for the Benjamin Britten opera based on Henry James’ ghostly short story.
The set up is, to an extent, familiar: a governess arrives at a large country house, charged with the care of two children, who aside from a friendly housekeeper are its only occupants. Although her charges appear lively and good-natured at first, all is not what it seems and the governess is soon faced with ghostly apparitions and terrifying truths.
The intricacies of the plot, however, are not particularly easy to follow with no prior knowledge of James’ work. While the libretto by Myfanwy Piper maintains suspense with a gradual unfolding of events, you also get the feeling that Piper concealed key snippets of character and plot development in single lines, which – coupled with occasionally uneven sound levels and some unclear diction on the night – leaves frustrating gaps right until the end.
Plot-based quibbles aside, everything about Alessandro Talevi’s production is designed to enhance the sinister nature of the story. Matthew Kaskins’ lighting design builds atmosphere, creating murky depths in the corners of the stage and allowing the ghosts to appear and vanish again with a speed that startles.
Madeleine Boyd’s set design features a huge angled wall and window which loom over the characters, a translucent door used to great effect for fleeting glimpses of shadowy figures, and cornerstones of Victorian Gothic horror: an independently moving rocking horse and a four-poster bed. However, the multi-purpose nature of the set doesn’t help with the lack of clarity around the plot – it’s often hard to tell where scenes are happening, and whether all the characters onstage are witnesses to the action.
It is Benjamin Britten’s music, however, that really sets the tone. Eerie and unsettling throughout, it employs wavering strings and woodwind to build tension, bursts of percussion at moments of drama, and in one memorably unnerving scene, chiming church bells.
The six strong cast maintain the atmosphere with their performances, particularly Eleanor Dennis as the terrifying Miss Jessel and Jennifer Clark as a menacing young Flora – her puppet show scene on top of the four poster bed frame, lullabying her governess to sleep, is enough to give anyone nightmares.
The Turn of the Screw is an experience that scares with subtlety and entertains with atmospheric music, but it’s definitely one that requires a synopsis to be read before curtain up.★ ★ ★
Opera North is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 10-14 March 2020.
Tue 10 Mar The Marriage of Figaro 7.00pm
Wed 11 Mar The Turn of the Screw 7.30pm
Thu 12 Mar The Marriage of Figaro (audio-described) 7.00pm
Fri 13 Mar Street Scene (captioned) 7.00pm
Sat 14 Mar The Marriage of Figaro 7.00pm