Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw
is a masterpiece of atmosphere, ambiguity, and eerie foreboding. Britten's vocal lines mirror the characters' thoughts and feelings and his brilliant orchestration, with its variety of moods and colors, adds fresh nuances to the narrative, pushing it to its inexorable conclusion with emotional power. Richard Hickox conducts expertly and the small orchestra plays with mood-sustaining feeling and projects Britten's inventive scoring with expressiveness and tonal beauty. Lisa Milne in the pivotal role of the governess is superb, singing and acting the role as if born for it. The veteran soprano Diana Montagu as the old housekeeper matches her vocally and acts wonderfully; the interactions between the two singers convey their shared fears, overt in the governess, largely suppressed by the housekeeper. The ghosts are as good; the evil Quint well-portrayed by Mark Padmore, whose beautiful high lyric tenor bends notes and phrases with suitably honeyed malevolence. The children and the former governess are on the same exalted level.
But what makes this DVD version so successful is Katie Mitchell's imaginative direction, vindicating the risky decision to translate the opera from stage to film. This can often subvert what is after all a stage work, artificially airing out indoor scenes or incongruities like having arias sung on mountaintops. Here though, she uses images like a bird's egg crushed by Quint or the dark woods surrounding the house to amplify characterization and mood. Even the device of having soliloquies on the soundtrack while the singer is close-mouthed on screen works, thanks to superb acting that substitutes the understated facial expressions of film for the overstated acting enforced by the stage. Rarely does Mitchell falter; perhaps there are a few too many shots of the ghosts walking purposefully in the woods, but such moments are unimportant given the excellence of this, the finest DVD version of the opera. --Dan Davis