Theatre Review: Turn of the Screw / Garsington Opera

The Turn Of The Screw by Britten, , Opera by Benjamin Britten, Conductor -Richard Farnes, Director-Louisa Muller, Designer-Christopher Oram, Lighting Designer-Malcolm Rippeth, Garsington Opera, 2019, Credit: Johan Persson

Given opera’s inherent campness it seems a shame that gay lives so rarely feature in the works of the great composers, writes Cary Gee, and when they do they are all too often hidden in plain sight, or simply hidden, rather than celebrated.

Fortunately that has never stopped us from throwing on our glad rags and wallowing in histrionics. But why create a drama of your own when many of the greatest artists in history have combined to produce them for us?

There really is no better way to spend an evening (and a wodge of your hard-earned cash) than at the opera, and certainly no better way to see opera than on a balmy summer’s evening, in the grounds of one of our historic country houses.

Currently the finest, and certainly most convivial country house opera festival can be found at Wormsley Hall, home to Garsington Opera, and I’m not just talking about the music. Everything about Garsington is laden with wonder. From the astonishingly beautiful gardens to the surprising fact that women really can wear flat shoes beneath a floor length evening gown. So channel your inner Daniel Craig and don your best bib and tucker, dust off that wicker picnic basket you’ve not used since that afternoon on Hampstead Heath, (don’t forget the champagne) and take advantage of the great British summer to do something you might not have considered before. As you enjoy the show, and as importantly the lengthy picnic break beside the lake, you’ll wonder how in the world you ever confused your Magic Flute with your Dido.

When Garsington Opera began in 1989 it was with one production, The Marriage of Figaro. Now in its 30th anniversary season it is staging five operas. Returning to Britten’s Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James’ novella, last staged by the company in 1992, Louisa Muller directs an outstanding cast, set in a decaying country house, designed by Christopher Oram.

The new house at Mark Getty’s Wormsley Hall, though far from decaying is the perfect setting among ‘these great trees’ as the early evening light fades.

Doubling as the Prologue and the sinister spirit Quint, tenor Ed Lyon delivers the quietest of entries as he calls for the child Miles from beyond the grave, his insinuating melismas embodying evil. The wonderful Sophie Bevan as the governess finds an unhysterical centre in this neurotic psychosexual melodrama, and Kathleen Wilkinson as Mrs Grose, her confidant and comforter is in astonishing form.

Some productions have failed to avoid the camp in staging this horror, for instance when Miss Jessell, sung by the excellent Katherine Broderick, appears beyond the lake, but having her seemingly walk on water through the lake in her vast black Victorian mourning dress is chilling. All three women move throughout the production in a deliberately languid and effective pace.

The ghosts do look a little too healthy perhaps (avoiding the Hammer film trope) and are often disturbingly close to the human characters, while the Garsington orchestra is a band of virtuosi, which, under the meticulous direction of conductor Richard Farnes assumes a role almost of another character, moving the drama on from scene to scene.

The quietest wind solos you will ever hear demand rapt attention, as does the eerily candescent singing of the children, Elen Wilmer (Flora) and Leo Jemison (Miles), never more than so on Miles’ creepy Latin ‘Malo’ ariette.

As the shadows outside the theatre lengthen, and the light turns quickly from crepuscular to country black a chill that belies the temperature outside descends and suddenly you’re glad for that free blanket you picked up on your way in. The goosebumps you feel are surely what novelist Henry James intended, or are they the result of something other?