Benjamin Britten’s psychological thriller, based on Henry James’ ambiguous ghost story, must have been doubly shocking in 1950s Britain.
This gripping production, directed by Louisa Muller and designed by Christopher Oram, makes explicit the unsavoury aspects of the story, in which the children are groomed by the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel. It’s like a satisfying Scandi noir, but with a soundtrack to die for – and here Britten’s ravishing, otherworldly soundscape was played with subtlety and precision by the Garsington Festival Orchestra under Richard Farnes.
The setting is a graceful Victorian conservatory, rusting wrought iron walls with dusty windows giving glimpses of ghostly faces. The designers take advantage of the changing natural light, letting sunlight fall across the flagstones to reassure the new governess that all is beautiful and good in this house. By the second act, night is falling, the lake seeps up through the crumbling flagstones and the ghosts emerge from their hiding places.
Most baleful of all is the valet Peter Quint, sung with menacing beauty by Ed Lyon. Sophie Bevan subdues her usual radiance to play the naive, nervous governess, unable to save the children from Quint and sweet, unhinged Miss Jessel (Katherine Broderick).
Kathleen Wilkinson is a warm, sympathetic Mrs Grose, upholstered (as are all the women) in a huge-skirted Victorian gown. Adrianna Forbes-Dorant and Leo Jemison as Flora and Miles are astonishingly self-possessed performers – Miles in particular transforms from a sweet-voiced boy into a disturbing man-child who lures his governess into an unhealthy embrace.
The final image, in which Bevan disappears into the darkness, is particularly haunting.