BBC Radio 3, 7 November 2009
This highly acclaimed English National Opera revival of Britten's opera
showed the composer's genius as a musuician and emphasized the enduring attraction of James' novella. In an illuminating introduction,
film-maker John Bridcutt explained that Britten say the tale as one of burgeoning sexuality - a children's story with adult
themes. The composer drew a parallel between The Turn of the Screw and Erich Kastner's 1931 novel Emil and the
Detectives (adapted recently for Radio 4); both works viewed the world from a child's perspective, while showing the
protagonists coming to terms with the adult world.
In Britten's opera the ages of the two children - Miles and Flora - have been reversed.
Flora is now thirteen while Miles is a ten-year-old boy trying to come to terms with the knowledge that he has done something
bad (i.e. sexually deviant) at boarding school. The fact that Miles has had to conceal this reflects Britten's own agonies
as a practising homosexual living in a context where it was still illegal.
David McVicar's revival focuysed in particular on sexual issues, in an approach reminiscent
of late 1980s/ early 1990s films of the novella (for example, Graeme Clifford's 1989 television film, or Rusty Lemorande's
1992 film starring Stephane Audran and Patsy Kensit). The two children played perverted versions of familiar games to the
sound of nursery rhymes ('Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son') on a stage on which was stretched a white dust-sheet now soiled with
age and incessant use. When Miles (Hugh Beckwith) said good night to the governess (Rebecca Evans)\ he planted a long, loving
kiss on her lips, indicating that he was well aware of her strong (possibly paedophiliac) desires to possess him.
The Governess was not immune from such corruption. McVicar suggested that she was
entering a barren, sterile world when she came to Bly through a pile of autumn leaves at the back of the stage. Although determined
to 'protect' the children from the ghosts of Quint (Michael Colvin) and Miss Jessel (Cheryl Barker), McVicar showed how she
was eventually possessed by them; the governess' wild looks, particularly at the end, only confirmed this impression. At the
end her mental anguish - as expressed through her hug - quite literally asphyxiated the boy to death.
Conceived for thirteen singers, with the governess onstage throughout, Britten's
Turn of the Screw is a demanding work whose sexual themes still have the power to shock, even at a time when censorship
restrictions have been relaxed, as compared to the time of the opera's first performance during the late 1950s.