Attending the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre for the first time last night, I had a sense that the outdoor, natural setting would make it difficult for other productions of Britten’s opera to compete. This is a collaborative project with the English National Opera (ENO), in hope of introducing dedicated members and regular attendees of the Open Air theatre to opera. And in many ways it succeeds.

Rhian Lois as the governess. Credit: Johan Persson.

Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw inspired the young British composer, Benjamin Britten. In 1954, he was commissioned by the Venice Biennale to adapt the haunting tale into an opera with the writer, Myfanwy Piper. The Turn of the Screw had its premiere at the Teatro La Fenice and was the first opera to be filmed for British independent television. It is known as one of the most performed English language operas in the world.

Director, Timothy Sheader sets the gloomy and ominous tone of Britten’s chamber opera in Soutra Gilmour’s chilling set designs. Right in front of the audience, an old-aged piano is stationed in the middle of a patch of grass. The Bly grand country house, the home of our orphaned children abandoned by their uncle, Miles and Flora, is an opaque glass house for the main characters to slide in and out of. Perception is a strong theme in James’s story and often the characters’ silhouettes can be seen, but you can’t see their faces. Is someone really there? Is it a ghost, or a figment of your imagination? Gilmour also provides a wooden path towards an invisible lake, isolating them from the rest of the world.

Sholto McMillan and Ellie Bradbury as Miles and Flora. Credit: Johan Persson.

James’s story describes the events of a governess charged with the care of two children, but the ending doesn’t go the same way as Julie Andrews’s gleeful musical story. Instead, things go bump in the night. The audience is left to second-guess who the villains are and interpret an ending that is open to speculation. In fact, since 1898, the debate has continued on whether the dead master valet (Peter Quint) and past governess (Miss Jessel) are actual ghosts tormenting the children or mere projections of the current governess’s mind.

The opera captures the spooky and supernatural undertones through Britten’s piercingly sensitive and evocative music. This is astonishingly performed by the 13 musicians of the ENO as well as ENO’s Mackerras Fellow, Toby Purser as the orchestra’s conductor. The social unease and eerie echoes are demonstrated through an array of interesting instruments, including the celesta, tubular bells and strange songs inspired by Balinese gamelan music.

Rachael Lloyd as Miss Jessel. Credit: Johan Persson.

Two groups share the character roles. On the night I attended, I was thoroughly stimulated and moved by all performances. Sholto McMillan and Ellie Bradbury were active, engaged and energetic as the young children. They sang with softness and tenderness, illustrating Miles and Flora’s exposed vulnerability to the evil spirits. They echoed the behaviours of William Morgan’s Peter Quint and Rachael Lloyd’s Miss Jessel effortlessly.

Rhian Lois is a tour de force on stage with a beautiful opera voice. Her heroic performance as the loving governess took the audience on a journey through the unexplained country home, which made the audience believe Miss Jessel and Peter Quint were not imaginary figures in her mind. Sarah Pring gave an admirable and strong performance as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. She also showed a genuinely worried and concerned guardian of the children. And William Morgan and Rachael Lloyd’s unsettling presence as the evil forces were captivating and convincing. Both sang with sorrow and intensity.

Sholto McMillan and Ellie Bradbury as Miles and Flora. At the end right, Rhian Lois as the governess. Credit: Johan Persson.

Once the first half ended at the Regent’s Park, the sun disappeared, the moon slowly rose up high and the summer breeze approached the most important part of the opera. The night became cooler and so did the opera, accompanied by the spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

The Open Air theatre’s production of The Turn of the Screw gathers suspense as the evening goes on. An opera production of this unworldly nature is ideal for the summer nights to come.

Sholto McMillan as Miles and William Morgan as Peter Quint. Credit: Johan Persson.

The Turn of the Screw is now showing at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre until 30 June. Tickets available online here.

(I was provided a press ticket to review the opera.)