Benjamin Britten's opera "The Turn of the Screw" brings together two subjects that make people uneasy: ghosts and child molestation. In tonight's presentation of this work (Channel 26, 9 to 11 p.m.), "Great Performances" will live up to its name.
Based on the Henry James novel of the same name, "The Turn of the Screw" is quite unlike anything else in the repertoire. This production (from Unitel in Munich) captures and elaborates its unique qualities.
The opera, like the novel, is about two dead servants (Peter Quint, the valet, and Miss Jessel, the governess) who come back to haunt an English country house. The real purpose of their return is not to continue bygone quarrels (though they do a bit of that) nor to scare the new governess and the housekeeper (though they manage to do that quite thoroughly). It is to finish a project begun in their lifetimes: the corruption of young Miles and Flora, two children who have been left in a vast, isolated country house in the care of two baffled, frightened women.
It is a chilling story of a battle between good and evil, with many odd episodes and a final outcome that is, at best, ambiguous. Britten goes beyond Henry James, by giving dialogue to the two ghosts, who never speak in the novel and might have been produced by the fevered imagination of the governess. In turn, this production goes beyond Britten, adding a wordless mimed prologue to give tantalizing fragments of a background that the novel and the opera leave unexplored.
The music is a fine example of Britten's virtuosity as a dramatic composer, with many spooky touches in the melody, harmony and orchestration. It also shows his ingenuity in using abstract forms -- notably in the theme and 15 variations that serve as a prelude to and interludes between its 16 tense scenes.
"The Turn of the Screw" calls for six performers (including two children) with extraordinary acting and singing ability, and for this television film the assignment was divided between two casts -- actors and singers. The singers featured in a production at Covent Garden taped the sound track in England, with Sir Colin Davis conducting a musically taut and vivid interpretation. Then, under the direction of the strangely talented Petr Weigl, the visuals were shot with European actors and actresses on location in and around one of the stately homes of Yugoslavia.
It could have been a disaster; instead, it is a brilliant success. Weigl's eye for the convincing gesture, the telling detail, the effective thematic use of landscape and architecture is impressive, and he manipulates visual symbols with dexterity. There are occasional small lapses in the lip-synchronization of actors with singers, but most of the time this demanding work is done with remarkable precision.
The children chosen to play Miles and Flora are slightly older than one would expect from hints in the libretto, but this makes the overtones of lost innocence more convincing. There are also some details in the setting that might hint that this palatial home is not in England. The tower that figures rather prominently in the plot as Quint's base of operations is clearly an Islamic minaret, complete with a crescent surmounting its dome. But it is not hard to imagine such a tower being erected on his grounds by an eccentric baronet of the Regency era, and the emphatically phallic form of the tower is exploited by Weigl (like the governess's white dress, an apple tree on the grounds and the furniture and paintings in the house) for symbolic overtones.
The actors (Magdalena Vasaryova, for example, and Juraj Kukura) are hardly household words in this country, but they perform effectively and are visually very well cast. The voices include some of the best in England, notably those of Helen Donath, Heather Harper and Robert Tear.