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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 8 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 45
Serious spooks - Classic ghost tale comes to life as a perfectly realized opera
Arts & Entertainment
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Serious spooks - Classic ghost tale comes to life as a perfectly realized opera

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

BRITTEN: THE TURN OF THE SCREW
LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
(FRA Musica Blu-ray; 2013)


Henry James wrote this gothic ghost story with his own characteristic avoidance of stereotypical ghostly features, supplying instead more of a psychological tone for the narrative. Jonathan Kent, the director of this 2011 Glyndebourne production of Benjamin Britten's opera, carries that one step further by removing most of the gothic elements from this setting and focusing even more intently on psychological motivations. The result is truly upsetting and effective.

Fortunately, all the other elements, including the visual and sonic technicalities, come together to make this Blu-ray disc an impressive success that leaves at least this viewer genuinely spooked at its finish. (Seattle Opera's production from many years ago was equally effective, with tenor Peter Kazaras sounding very much like the late Peter Pears, for whom this role was written.)

First of all there's the state-of-the-art, spacious sound, which one may employ in either stereo or 5.1 surround formats. (I recommend the 5.1.) The London Philharmonic Orchestra is flawless under handsome Jakub Hr├╝aa, articulating Britten's exquisite score for reduced forces (in keeping with the reduced resources just after World War II) with utter clarity and evocative atmosphere. Balances are perfect, and the camera work cannot be faulted.

Next, the cast is ideal. Miah Persson is a Swedish soprano with equally impressive vocal and dramatic talents. Her blonde good looks are somewhat hidden under a brunette wig, making her initial innocence more credible. Tenor Toby Spence, while sounding nothing like Peter Pears, is devilishly attractive and handles the demanding melismas of his part with full effect. Susan Bickley is simply perfect as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Soprano Joanna Songi is convincing as the girl Flora, and Mezzo Giselle Allen handles the small role of Miss Jessel well.

A STAR IS BORN
The highlight of the cast is the 12-year-old boy soprano, Thomas Parfitt. He is as adorable as the role is supposed to be, and his soprano is pure and effortless. Best of all, his acting is subtle and scary without ever trying to be. Innocence and evil possession lurk behind his expressive eyes.

As in the Seattle production, the sets are not gothic, and instead are ever-changeable and highlighted by superb lighting and a slowly revolving stage. These reinforce the growing feeling of supernatural forces, as we are led into the possible madness of some of the characters. Reality comes more and more into question. Both visuals and the brilliant score work their magic to maximum effect. Skillful use of excellent projections contribute to the overall emotions of each scene, as the stage changes before the eyes of the audience during evocative orchestral interludes.

The ambiguity of the story (Are the ghosts real? Is the Governess mad? Is anyone truly innocent?) is part of its fascination and effectiveness. Each viewer will have his or her own interpretation, but few, I think, will deny the power of this perfect little (under two-hour) opera.

The disc comes with well-worthwhile extras, giving us a chance to see the cast and crew out of character and giving articulate comments about working on such a brilliant piece. We even get comments by Myfanwy Piper, Britten's original librettist, recorded at the debut production. This disc is as good as dramatic opera gets, short of actually being there.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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