Daniel Harding

Britten: The Turn of the Screw [DVD Video]

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The Turn of the Screw has fared remarkably well in its video productions. There are few operas, especially modern ones, that are represented by so many excellent, diverse video versions. In a strong field, what is perhaps the most satisfying version is unfortunately out of print (only the CD version is available) -- director Petr Weigl's extraordinarily powerful film (not stage) production, which uses professional actors dubbed by singers including Helen Donath, Heather Harper, and Robert Tear. BelAir Classiques' DVD of a performance staged at the 2001 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence may not have quite its consistent dramatic punch, but musically it's one of the strongest performances on CD or video.

Director Luc Bondy, set designer Richard Peduzzi, and lighting designer Dominique Bruguière have made vivid stage pictures with the simplest of elements, consisting largely of flat white surfaces that somehow create the sense of the outdoors, and both spacious and claustrophobic interiors. These panels are practically characters in themselves, and in some scenes, they move around the stage nearly as constantly as the actors. The singers portraying the living characters are exceptional actors, and practically every movement or facial expression seems natural and spontaneous. Mireille Delunsch is unsurpassed in her troubled and troubling portrayal of the Governess; she's completely believable, and she sings like an angel. Her voice is absolutely pure and focused, capable of great delicacy and great power. As Mrs. Gross, Hanna Schaer gives real depth to the character, and her portrayal, both dramatically and vocally, conveys the housekeeper's decline from cheerful hope to abashed horror. The children are stellar, certainly among the strongest and most vocally secure on CD or DVD. Olivier Dumait declaims the Prologue with suave naturalness and manages to make musical sense of its spiky and (uncharacteristically, for Britten) awkward vocal writing. The ghosts, Peter Quint (Marlin Miller) and Miss Jessel (Marie McLaughlin), are less persuasive, not because of any vocal deficits, because they both sing beautifully, but because Bondy doesn't make them believable, particularly in their interactions with the living. (The problem of the ghosts is inherent in Britten's and librettist Myfanwy Piper's vision for the opera; putting them on-stage, where they are always visible to the audience but only selectively visible to the living characters, demands a considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewers. It also eliminates the sense of mystery in the novella; we aren't in suspense about whether or not the ghosts are real because we can see them.) Bondy portrays them more as drunken, tarted-up refugees from a Las Vegas stage than as characters who could have anything at all to do with a nineteenth century English country house.

Conductor Daniel Harding's pacing of the opera is superb; it has rarely sounded so atmospheric and mysterious. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays with wonderful clarity and freedom; their performance makes it clear that the opera is no mannered exercise in English preciousness, as it can sometimes come off, but a genuine masterpiece. Musically, this version can be recommended without reservation, and aside from the weak portrayal of the ghosts, it's a dramatically powerful performance.