The Turn of the Screw (Opera North) – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre

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By Sandra Callard, February 2020

Opera North from Leeds, purveyors of beautiful music, glorious singing and stories of drama, tragedy and comedy, have brought the famous and nerve-tingling story by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, to life at the Grand Theatre in Leeds as part of a national tour. With music written by Benjamin Britten, this production has resulted in a Turn of the Screw like no other.

This originally startling and ghostly tale resulted in many sleepless nights for readers of the book and even more for patrons of films such as the 1961 version, The Innocents, which is based on James’s book, and the numerous similar productions that followed. James’s story is streets ahead of similar ghost stories of the Victorian age in its literary skill, its under-stated and surprisingly early sexual themes, and its page-turning, tight writing and unexpectedly powerful suspense.

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“Strange bewilderment”

This latest production by Opera North shows very little of the above essentials. Sung in English, it really needs the translation boards that are shown on either side of the stage when an opera is sung in a foreign language, because hardly a word of the singing can be deciphered by the audience, whose muttered complaints were plainly heard at the interval.

Britten’s accompanying music is largely forgettable and often dreary, and, although the story is well known to me, I was nevertheless left with a strange bewilderment that both the story and the music held nowhere near enough of the fear and tension that was prevalent in James’s mighty original. I am aware that to criticise the enduring and powerful music of England’s giant composer, Britten, is little short of scandalous, so suffice it to say this was not his finest hour.

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“Slight horror”

The stage setting never changes; It is a bedroom, around which all action and singing take place, and where all sense of mystery and suspense are lost. This is such a shame because the wonderful singers of Opera North never put a foot wrong, and there are many good performances, particularly from eleven year old Tim Gasiorek in his Opera North debut who plays the possessed child Miles with an assurance that belies his years, and the ghostly Peter Quint who presents a menacing and sinister apparition is sung and played to perfection by Nicholas Watts. There is a successful attempt at conjuring up some nervous atmosphere by the slightly sinister window to the outside that occasionally showed the vague presence of the ghostly couple, and did engender some slight horror.

In spite of my reservations the almost full theatre gave the production significant applause, but no encore, and I left feeling somewhat cheated that a great opportunity had somehow been missed.

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“Glorious song”

Henry James’s wonderful book makes for an uneasy but compulsive read and the various films give a selection of ghostly entertainment and thrills, but this operatic Turn of the Screw never really gets off the ground, and what should hopefully have been an exhilarating and eerie new production loses itself in a welter of glorious song, which is far too good for the baffling presentation which offers only a tenuous nod to the fascinating and unnerving story of James’s towering novel.

Opera North’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ will be streamed from Leeds on OperaVision this Friday, 21 February, from 7.30pm
images: Tristram Kenton


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