During the interval of last night’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, I popped outside for a bit of cold air and second-hand smoke.  As I stood reading the playbills, a group of four people bustled out, one of whom was loudly and petulantly proclaiming “But I want PUCCINI!!!”  They did not return to the theatre for the second half, and I wasn’t surprised.  Britten seems as far from Puccini as you can get.

Full disclosure – I love Puccini.  I love Verdi and Rossini and Delibes and Bizet and Mozart.  I love the kind of opera that non-opera fans recognise from movies like Pretty Woman and Moonstruck.  (I’m Nicholas Cage, obviously.)  I love soaring arias and bosomy heroines and swelling choruses and rich costume and just lush extravagant music, with beautiful voices weaving in beautiful HARMONIC counterpoint.  I also loved last night’s production, wholeheartedly.

The Turn of the Screw is stripped back, with only six singers and a chamber orchestra.  The set is monochromatic and malleable, with dropsheets obscuring and then revealing new parts of the set.  Framing it are a series of Expressionist trapezoids.  These form a corridor, but that corridor could be one of many in a grand but mostly empty house, or a pathway between this life and the next, depending on the moment.  It all creates an effect both dreamlike and harsh, perfectly suited to the music and themes.  A clever and creative lighting design plays off it all, and turns a curtain into a window through which a Governess begins to see ominous figures influencing the children she is employed to protect.

Musically, Britten creates a deeply unsettling environment with dissonant music and vocal lines, describing the emotional atmosphere rather than anything as prosaic as dialogue or story.  A twelve-tone theme runs throughout, binding it all together – I didn’t realise it was there until later, when it was quietly whispering in my head.  The orchestra, tucked away at the side of the stage and sensitively directed by Holly Mathieson, at times seems to be far  more than just 13 players, and then drops away to just a harp, or a piano, a suggestion of accompaniment.

Anna Leese’s voice is magnificent, and her delivery powerfully moving, as her Governess moves from nervousness about a new position, to developing devotion to her charges, and then the realisation that something terrible has happened in the house and dark forces continue to hold sway.  She believably navigates an emotional journey that could seem illogical, and in the last moments, her horror and grief was heart-breaking.

Jared Holt and Madeleine Pierard are brilliantly cast, both with the kind of rich and throbbing voices perfect for the spectres they play and strong physicality.  But the children…

Alexa Harwood and Alexandros Swallow are simply extraordinary.  I genuinely cannot comprehend how performers of their age could play such morally complex parts that authentically, and their voices are truly excellent.  Add the challenge of singing parts often in dischord with the accompanying music and other singers…  Just mind-boggling.

I’ve tried my best to avoid spoilers, because I truly think anyone who CAN get to the second and last performance (Saturday 5th, at the Opera House) of this limited season, SHOULD.  Britten can be alienating, if you prefer a sweeter, more romantic style of opera, and the story is distressing, with its themes of corruption of innocence and helplessness.  But if you allow yourself to be taken on that journey, you will invest in it, you will feel things, and that’s what good opera should do.