Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Giselle Allen; Toby Spence; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša. Production: Jonathan Kent. FRA Musica FRA 507 (Blu-ray) or FRA 007 (DVD), 111 mins. (opera), 22 mins. (bonus), subtitled
The Turn of the Screw unfolds at a crossroads of innocence and corruption, but how, exactly, do these terms apply? Jonathan Kent's Glyndebourne production, filmed in 2011, situates the action in the 1950s — a time we are apt to regard as much with nostalgia for its solid family values as with disdain for its double standards and repression.
Subtle, counterintuitive accents crop up with unsettling frequency. Surely there is nothing untoward in the sisterly (or motherly?) kiss the country housekeeper Mrs. Grose bestows on the nameless new Governess, yet it provokes an evil burst of knowing laughter from the spying orphans Flora and Miles. Surely the predatory Peter Quint ought not to walk in on Miles in his bath, wrap him in a towel, carry him outdoors into the falling snow and clasp him in a still embrace. Yet the scene turns creepy only when Quint vanishes and the Governess arrives, enfolding Miles in her bathrobe as the lights fade.
Paul Brown's principal design element is an uncluttered white box; a doll's house, an out-of-season Christmas tree and bits of furniture glide on and off on a double revolving stage. Visual constants are a bare, broken branch that hangs overhead and a sheet of etched glass. Tilting this way and that, now as windows, now as the lake, the transparent surface always marks the razor's edge between the living and the ghosts. The lighting by Mark Henderson, a wizard with haze, glare and wavy reflection, deepens the aura of the uncanny.
The cast has no place to hide and needs none. To the role of the Governess, Swedish soprano Miah Persson brings the fresh, wholesome looks of a young Liv Ullmann, the vocal bloom and focus of a young Renée Fleming and an unforced emotional transparency all her own. No gentleman, according to Mrs. Grose, Toby Spence's Peter Quint certainly sings like one. His gaze is steady, and he never wheedles, as so many in the role have done. His timbre is classy, his diction intense, his phrasing borne onward with longing or spiked with exasperation. Painting in dark, urgent tones, Giselle Allen catches the hollowness at the heart of the clinging Miss Jessel. Susan Bickley rises to Mrs. Grose's outbursts of horror and indignation with a kind of majesty.
As Miles, twelve-year-old Thomas Parfitt sings in a choirboy treble, true to pitch, with melancholy to spare. That he might have stepped from a Ralph Lauren fashion spread does no harm, either. Hints of self-consciousness become the role; the occasional seductive note in Parfitt's scenes with the Governess shows a born heartbreaker testing his budding powers. The frisky Joanna Songi gives the sketchy role of Flora both edge and sparkle.
Many have marveled at the symphonic panorama of sounds and textures The Turn of the Screw unfurls with a chamber ensemble of only thirteen players. The narrative prologue, which is accompanied by piano only, receives a pointedly clinical reading here, but with the entrance of the other instruments, the young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša sets sail on a spellbinding odyssey that passes from sighs and whispers to all-out bedlam, from the anxiety of one pounding heart to the translucent cascading of the tower bells.