The Gramophone Choice
Ian Bostridge ten Prologue, Peter Quint Joan Rodgers sop Governess Julian Leang treb Miles Caroline Wise sop Flora Jane Henschel sop Mrs Grose Vivien Tierney sop Miss Jessel Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Daniel Harding
Virgin 545521-2 (106' · DDD · T) Buy from Amazon
This absorbing version of Britten’s arresting masterpiece, derived from Henry James’s ever-mysterious short story, is based on the stage performances given by the Royal Opera in Deborah Warner’s controversial staging. It offers a considerable challenge to both the premiere recording, conducted by the composer, and the more recent version conducted by Steuart Bedford (Naxos). The new recording catches all the sinister fascination of Britten’s most tautly composed opera score, so aptly matched to James’s tale and to Myfanwy Piper’s evocative libretto.
Daniel Harding extracts the greatest tension from both the finely wrought writing for the chamber ensemble and from the well-balanced and, by and large, exemplary cast. He’s helped by the clearest and most detailed recording the work has yet received.
When discussing the merits of the casts one is comparing three teams of undoubted excellence. Nevertheless there are distinctions to be made. As on stage, Joan Rodgers nicely balances the need to suggest the ingenuous and the excitable side of the Governess’s nature, which she conveys in a performance that combines clarity of diction with the vocal verities. Bostridge’s ethereal, other-worldly, eerily magnetic Quint provides an interesting contrast with Philip Langridge’s more forceful and present assumption for Bedford. Both are preferable to Pears’s more mannered singing on the pioneering set, but that, needless to say, has its own authority. On the other hand neither Vivian Tierney nor Nadine Secunde (Bedford) quite match the searing sadness of Arda Mandikian’s dark-hued Miss Jessel for Britten. In the case of Mrs Grose, Jane Henschel, imposingly as she sings, sounds a trifle too stock-operatic in her responses to words and notes beside the particular gentility of Joan Cross (Britten) or the marvellously detailed and intensely uttered interpretation of Phyllis Cannan (Bedford).
This is an utterly absorbing version. Given its masterly engineering and sense of atmosphere it is, by a hair’s breadth, preferable to the Bedford among stereo recordings. The composer’s set remains both a historic document and the tautest reading, but most will prefer and be satisfied with the conviction and the sound of this newcomer.
Sir Peter Pears ten Prologue, Peter Quint Jennifer Vyvyan sop Governess David Hemmings treb Miles Olive Dyer sop Flora Joan Cross sop Mrs Grose Arda Mandikian sop Miss Jessel English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten
Decca London mono 425 672-2LH2 (105' · ADD · T). Recorded 1955. Buy from Amazon
Also available in ‘The Complete Britten Operas, Vol 2’, also containing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice and Gloriana (475 60296DC10 – 10 discs). Buy from Amazon
Will there ever be a better performance, let alone recording, of The Turn of the Screw than this by the original cast, recorded less than four months after the 1954 Venice premiere? This score is Britten at his greatest, expressing good and evil with equal ambivalence, evoking the tense and sinister atmosphere of Bly by inspired use of the chamber orchestra and imparting vivid and truthful life to every character in the story. As one listens, transfixed, all that matters is Britten’s genius as a composer. Jennifer Vyvyan’s portrayal of the Governess is a classic characterisation, her vocal subtleties illuminating every facet of the role, and she has the perfect foil in Joan Cross’s motherly and uncomplicated Mrs Grose. The glittering malevolence of Pears’s Quint, luring David Hemmings’s incomparable Miles to destruction; the tragic tones of Arda Mandikian’s Miss Jessel; Olive Dyer’s spiteful Flora – how fortunate we are that these performances are preserved. As with all the Decca/Britten reissues, the transfer is a triumph.
Mark Padmore ten Peter Quint Lisa Milne sop Governess Nicholas Kirby Johnson treb Miles Caroline Wise sop Flora Diana Montague sop Mrs Grose Catrin Wyn-Davies sop Miss Jessel City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox
Video director Katie Mitchell
Opus Arte DVD OA0907D (119’ · 16:9 · PCM stereo · 0) Buy from Amazon
This film was much lauded when shown on BBC2. Katie Mitchell’s arresting production opens up the story, taking it into the countryside and producing spooky and louring images to create the mysterious and dangerous aura of Bly, which does no harm to the intentions of Henry James and Benjamin Britten. Mitchell allows the characters’ interior monologues to be heard while the singers’ mouths remain closed – especially apt for the role of the Governess.
For about two thirds of the work the director keeps within the boundaries stipulated by Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, making us fully aware of the ambiguities of the participants and their relationships. But in the third part she rather allows her ideas to get out of hand, the nightmarish images becoming too surreal, especially for the ghosts and the children, although she recovers in time to make the final struggle between the Governess and Quint for Miles’s soul an arresting close. We’re left, as we should be, uncertain at the state of the Governess’s mind and the exact powers of the ghosts.
Richard Hickox commands every aspect of the tricky score, lovingly executed by members of his orchestra, even if the balance with the singers sometimes goes awry. The cast is splendid. Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles achieves just the right balance between innocence and knowingness. His singing is fluent and pointed, as is that of Caroline Wise, a teenage Flora with a lively presence, expressive eyes and a malleable voice. Lisa Milne, unflatteringly garbed, is rather too confident of voice and mien as the Governess. Although she sings with her customary clarity of line and word, she doesn’t suggest the nervous vulnerability of Jennifer Vyvyan, who created the role. Diana Montague is a gratifyingly sympathetic Mrs Grose, using body language to convey just the right feeling of apprehension and concern over the fate of her charges. Mark Padmore is among the best of Quints, vocally and histrionically. Catrin Wyn-Davies is a properly wild and scary Miss Jessel. All in all, this is the version to have.