Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw

spacer Tilling, Bell, Songi, A. Owens; Sladdin, Burden; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gardner. Notes and text. Glyndebourne GFOCD 011-07 (2)


Benjamin Britten's transformation of Henry James's classic novella retains its haunting, gripping quality after nearly sixty years. Myfanwy Piper's terse libretto expertly condensed the story of a governess whose two young charges are possessed by malevolent ghosts (or are they?) to two relatively short acts, each comprising eight scenes, and Britten enhanced the structure by making each interlude a variation on the musical theme that launches the story, and by imagining a unique scoring for six high voices and thirteen instruments. This stylization of structure and medium has intensified the work's power, as shown by its continued presence on the world's stages and on recordings, of which we now have six.

This newest CD version, made at performances in the Glyndebourne Opera House in 2007, proves highly successful in capturing orchestral color and good but occasionally imperfect in terms of vocal immediacy. (Some lines sound distant for reasons unrelated to story.) Also audible are noises from the stage (puzzling when they're unscripted intrusions such as cries of childish glee at allegedly child-free moments) and from the audience (distracting in the delicate compositional world of this opera, because each small sound means something).

The orchestra is one of the great assets of this recording: the members of the London Philharmonic play beautifully and perceptively under Edward Gardner's direction (allowing for a slip or two, inevitable in live circumstances), creating the special atmosphere of this opera — outward beauty and peace hiding something disturbing at the core — as well as I have ever heard it done.

The cast doesn't always manage similar completeness. Its strongest element is William Burden, the first recorded Peter Quint to come from outside the line of British tenors who have succeeded to the roles created by Peter Pears. Memorable as those fine artists have been, it is a special pleasure to hear a colorful romantic tenor encompass these sinuous spectral phrases and create from them so magnetic a character.

Camilla Tilling sings appealingly, and with feeling for her character. Yet she does little with the small reactions and inflections, sometimes of a single word ("Died?"), that bring the enigmatic Governess to fullest life, as we can hear in the best of her recorded predecessors (Jennifer Vyvyan, Helen Donath, Felicity Lott). 

All the boys who have done Miles for recordings have shown remarkable accomplishment vocally and musically, and Christopher Sladdin is no exception; but like Tilling, in purely aural terms he doesn't do as much as he might to make his character live for us. The situation is reversed with the former governess Miss Jessel (Emma Bell) and the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Anne-Marie Owens), who deliver generally characterful portrayals that no doubt worked well in the theater but reveal vocal lacks on a recording — tonal solidity for the former, precision of pitch for the latter. Joanna Songi, a teenaged soprano rather than the usual adult one, portrays the child Flora convincingly and touchingly; she is one of the best in this role.

As with other Glyndebourne releases, this is published as a small book with cardboard pockets for the CDs. Though of generally high quality, the recording is up against some strong competition, particularly the Bedford-led version now available on Naxos. Its strongest features are the orchestra and the late tenor Philip Langridge, for listeners whose interest favors those elements. spacer


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