, January 2011
This production from 1990 is a solid representation of Benjamin Britten’s unsettling opera, based on the novel of the same name by Henry James. The opera tells the story of a Governess who is charged with the care of two young children, Miles and Flora. When she arrives at their house she becomes convinced that the ghosts of two previous servants, Quint and Quint’s mistress Miss Jessel, are trying to corrupt the children, and she resolves to save them.
Richard Greager, who sings both the prologue and Peter Quint, brings a strong voice to his roles. He has a floating but present quality reminiscent of Peter Pears who premiered the part. Greager plays Quint as sinister but not aggressive or antagonistic. As Miss Jessel, Phyllis Cannan does not make a strong impression, partly due to the secondary nature of the part.
Helen Field as the Governess sings with agility and lightness appropriate to her character, but her acting is hollow, while Menai Davies, in the role of Mrs Grose the housekeeper, does a compelling job of being simple and motherly. Davies’ voice is at times overpowering in relation to the other singers, but during Act 1 reminiscences of Peter Quint her vocal dynamism proves an excellent dramatic addition. Of the two children Samuel Linay steals the show with his breathtaking voice and chilling delivery of Miles. In the final scene he does a convincing job not only of being a child, but also of being possessed by the troubled spirit of Quint.
On the other hand, Machiko Obata, who plays Flora, is not entirely believable as a young girl. Vocally she sounds heavy and spread as she reaches higher in her range, and among all of the singers her diction is the weakest. Overall the cast’s diction is quite good, but I was glad to have subtitles to check some of the words. The Stuttgart Radio Symphony, conducted by Steuart Bedford, performs Britten’s score without faults.
The audio for this DVD is good but not excellent—the transfer from the original VHS format carries many slight but noticeable distortions. Most distracting is the editor’s use of overlaid shots, which interfere with the continuity of what after all is a stage production. The staging by Michael Hampe uses little movement, preferring instead to paint pictures (as during the final scene of Act 1), leaving room for Britten’s music to carry the show. Although the Ghost scenes in particular are static and look a bit flat, this only adds to their eeriness. The period-style costumes are monochromatic, like the rest of the production. The sets are also wonderfully realistic, with the exception of a fake-looking painted scrim backdrop—which effectively gives the ghosts an aura of transparency when they appear behind it.
With the few caveats noted above, overall the production is quite enjoyable and offers a good representation of Britten’s opera. It’s well worth watching both for listener/observers unfamiliar with Britten and for those who have long been in love with his music. Recommended.