Opera House, Wellington

03/10/2019 - 05/10/2019

ASB Waterfront Theatre, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

18/10/2019 - 23/10/2019

Production Details

Dramatic tension at the heart of New Zealand Opera’s The Turn of the Screw

New Zealand Opera moves into the intimate surrounds of Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre and Wellington’s Opera House and next month for its chilling new production of Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s operatic thriller The Turn of the Screw.

The cast comprises four of New Zealand’s most acclaimed operatic performers in the adult roles – Anna Leese as the Governess, Jared Holt performing Prologue and Quint, Patricia Wright as Mrs Grose and Madeleine Pierard returns from a busy career in London to play Mrs Jessel. The children’s roles of Miles and Flora are shared by talented young performers Lukas Maher, Alexandros Swallow, Flora Olivia Forbes and Alexa Harwood

Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess says that The Turn of the Screw is built on ambiguity, with anxiety at the heart of the story. “Audiences will need to decide for themselves whether the ghosts are real or a product of other people’s imagination. It’s like a detective story, where the audience reads the clues and works out what is happening.”

Everything in the production is designed to heighten tension, from Britten’s brilliant music to Tracey Grant Lord’s enigmatic designs. “The Turn of the Screw is a very theatrical piece. We’ve been working hard in rehearsals to create a work of tense theatre. Our wonderful cast are already delivering some wonderful moments as we get stuck into rehearsals. When everything comes together on stage it’s going to be very unsettling.”

The Turn of the Screw premieres Wellington’s Opera House on 3 October for two performances, before transferring to Auckland for three shows at ASB Waterfront Theatre from 18 October.  Sung in English, the opera will feature chamber ensembles drawn from Orchestra Wellington and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Tickets are on sale now, with very limited tickets remaining for the Auckland season. For more information please visit

The Turn of the Screw
Opera House, Wellington
3 & 5 October

ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland
18, 20 & 23 October

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Theatre , Opera ,

A ghost story riddled with ambiguity

Review by John Button 09th Oct 2019

Based on the 1898 story by Henry James, Britten’s opera ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a ghost story riddled with ambiguity and composed with a musical economy and rigour that is, at times, at odds with the story.  

Using a small orchestra of thirteen players, Benjamin Britten uses the device of a theme and variations as the story unfolds, and he does so with more than a nod to the twelve-tone world of Arnold Schoenberg. [More


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An onstage dramatic tragedy of the top rank

Review by Dave Smith 04th Oct 2019

Who is the devil, Governess or Quint?

There is a generation of New Zealander that proudly proclaims, “When Jonah Lomu scored four tries against England in the 1995 World Cup – I was there.” Well, I can now personally state with equal pride that when The New Zealand Opera Company mounted its production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, I was there. This dynamic opera was made to be performed on our marvellous Opera House stage. And if you want to do yourself a favour, for the price of a ticket to a top class rugby game you can give yourself exquisite dreams and nightmares in equal proportion for the rest of your life. 

The Turn of the Screw started as a run-of-the-mill novella by estimable American writer Henry James in the late Victorian era. It has had a happy subsequent journey in the sense that much good has come of it over time. The 1960s black and white movie (The Innocents) directed by Jack Clayton is a commendably restrained masterpiece of horror that proves robustly conceived drama needs no special effects or grotesque settings in the Edgar Allan Poe stable of horror. Add to that the bittersweet and at times atonal melodies of Britten and you get a significant operatic event that is up there with his War Requiem. Each is a harrowing slog to life-changing effect.

The premise is neatly outlined in solo song as the work opens. ‘Governess’, in a moment of personal hubris, undertakes the dire task of bringing up two bright and superficially appealing children in an isolated Norfolk house assisted only by a housekeeper. Pater is beyond the realm and, for no overt reason, simply does not want to know: anything. Communication with him is an absolute no-no. Governess must swim – or sink into an Atlantic trench. But beware. The kids have form. Their outwards demeanour and mightily English exteriors (replete with huge doll house and model sailing clipper) cloak the fact that they live within some form of nameless dread. 

It is no accident that that we never know Governess’s name. She is but a blank canvas that will be used for some violent action painting practically from the get-go. Sadly, she is just another Nanny McPhee wannabe to be added to the pile. Her hubris in believing that she is up to the task, wanting to prove herself to the impressive father, is the central flaw in her tragedy.

As the narrator enunciates the impossible ground rules, Governess is seen coming towards us in luminescent turquoise dress, gift-wrapped for destruction. The sense of impending horrors is expressed in the form of a naive lady painted in oils stumbling into a sepia cum watercolor world where the past balefully controls both the present and the future. So, at this juncture one simply has to say that the way the piece is mounted and directed, its integration of action, sound and vision, is perfection on wheels.

As we all know, the Wellington Opera House has one of the deepest stages around. And here it facilitates a vision of the action that is downright cinematic. It unfolds the past into the present in the form of a series of six diminishing visual frames that lurch 30 degrees from vertical and sweep the eye into a time tunnel.

They evoke the off key inner world of the house whilst providing an invisible doorway that enables the nightmare that is to come, through which deceased monsters gain easy purchase on the lives of the innocent children and their Governess. (The deep focus and skewed eyeline effect of both The Third Man and Citizen Kane, not to mention Hitchcock’s dizzying tower in Vertigo.)

Within this fertile mise en scene the children flaunt their duality from the outset. Effective use of curtain gauze in a form of shadow theatre prises apart Governess’s confident facade and we learn that the smug little mites are controlled by the invisible cords that tie them to the deliciously named Quint and Miss Jessel: the Hindley and Brady of their day.  If Oranga Tamariki had existed back then the kids would have been uplifted by lunchtime.

Relentlessly the screw turns. You hear and feel it in the music. We see it in the curiously well-bred mockery of the Governess by the children. It starts in Lighting Designer Matthew Marshall’s sharp backlit shadow theatre with the junior duo ‘playing’ with a doll. Are they dandling it or hanging it? When the boy, Miles, plays grand piano with a maturity way beyond his years, it is with the diabolical Quint at his side. When the children go to church and the orchestra’s sweet bells ring out a harmonious peal of righteousness, the kids are making an exaggerated sign of the Cross as if trained to do so by Beelzebub himself. That marks the most overt beginning of Governess’s tragic descent into madness.

And therein lies the supreme dilemma of this masterwork. Are we watching comparative normality through the eyes an incipient madwoman? Or is a good and caring person being taken apart by a satanic tag team of monsters both big and small?

Britten and James conspire to leave us and our sensibilities suspended in the air. The onstage events are egregious but so are the human stakes as the souls of two young folk are held perilously in the balance. This a bear-pit of mental anguish. Very properly, there are no pretty choruses, towering arias, rich moments of romantic love aiming for top C. It is all agony in the truest sense of the word and we the audience are complicit in it.

This classic but not classical opera ends not on a resounding chord of music but with total silence. In that silence we take in the scene of horror where we are free to sympathise with what Governess has gone through. It could be one though where she could soon be having a harrowing time explaining the physical evidence to the prosaic plods of the Norfolk police. Once the Jamesian screw has turned nothing is cut and dried.

Rarely does one have the pleasure of reporting that a production has seamlessly drawn together all the elements of the drama so superbly that “everything works”. Here, it patently does. The visual conception is perfect. Holly Mathieson’s beautifully configured orchestra delivers the audience a fine bonus, being right up there with its dramatic timing and wall-to-wall atmosphere. At the same time it creates a Bernard Herrmann-like pace and drive (movies again, sorry) while supporting rather than dominating the singers who have a finely grained story to tell. Its presence is as evanescent as Quint’s. Top job, guys.

Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes (wonderfully displayed as designs in the excellent theatre programme) supply historical precision while adding to the demonic mood. They play the muted every-day off against the dread-inducing and intrusive black of the two deceased servants; all within a set (from the same designer) that rivets attention and provides the perfect stage for backwards and forwards movement of characters in time. On that point, the entire cast moves with purpose and confidence; and with the bodily discipline of ballet dancers – their smallest repositioning of props and minimal set is achieved so as to alter mood or to reinforce dramatic intent.

Governess is brought to life and thrown into the vortex by a bone china voiced Anna Leese whose personal purgatory we gladly accept and share in response to her high level of singing and strong acting skills that reinforce the intense claustrophobia of her daily life.  Alexandros Swallow’s Miles (a role once ‘owned’ by later film actor David Hemmings) is both precociously seductive with Governess (he calls her “my dear”) and unnervingly knowing. His sister Flora, rendered by Alexa Harwood, plays and sings her part as the first bold note of horror seeping into Governess’s new life, and she does that mightily well.

The housekeeper Mrs Grose, sung and well-acted by Patricia Wright, fulfils her dramatic and musical mission with a modulated care that induces strong believability and conveys the emerging plot with fine precision.

But on any analysis the performance will always stand or fall on the undermining influence of Quint and Miss Jessel. The former is played to perfection by Jared Holt. The latter, likewise, by Madeleine Pierard.

Holt dominates the stage. He oozes back and forth from the recesses of the past and the dark side of the human mind like a black mamba snake. His subversion of young Miles is best shown by a perfectly choreographed duo with the young lad, in which Quint influences him to divert a despairing letter sent by Governess to the family uncle. There is studiously no touching but within the movement two become one. When Quint and Miss Jessel burst onto the high ground of the symbolic family bedstead they command the stage and the world in a fearsome manner. They both sing with strength and subtlety and are banality made evil. But they are not of the present and do they really exist? (Mr Marshall’s clever lighting underlines the stark nature of what comes at us from upstage while the front-lighting is diffuse and ambiguous so ‘reality’ is always a moot point.)

The New Zealand Opera Company has always striven for the highest possible standards consistent with strapped resources. With this stellar production they hit the topper-most heights. Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Assistant Director Eleanor Bishop are due the highest possible credit and praise. They have facilitated an onstage dramatic tragedy of the top rank. Let us hope and trust that the Wellington public do not promote another by letting this massive production of The Turn of the Screw pass by on the other side of the street.


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