Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" is a masterwork of economy, compressing the events of Henry James' story into a two-hour chamber opera built meticulously on a theme-and-variations structure.
The subject--the corruption of innocence--often inspired Britten, and in this 1954 creation it is expressed through a plot involving evil supernatural forces, two children and their troubled governess.
Using as his sound track an exemplary performance of Britten's score by English forces led by Sir Colin Davis, director Petr Weigl has made a film of "The Turn of the Screw" with Yugoslav actors, to be shown tonight on the PBS "Great Performances" series (8 p.m. on Channel 24; 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15; Saturday at 9 p.m. on Channel 50).
Throughout, the voices of Helen Donath (the governess), Ava June (Mrs. Grose), Robert Tear (Quint), Heather Harper (Jessel) and others observe the letter and spirit of Britten's intentions. But Weigl's film is so obsessed with production overkill and glossy homoeroticism that it ultimately seems haunted less by the dead servants in the story than the living example of Franco Zeffirelli.
For starters, there are two prologues: Britten's (intercut with what seem to be shots of the governess taken after the events of the opera) and a sequence before that (with no words or music). Here we see Quint and Jessel hard at work seducing the children of Bly and their guardian as well. Corruption doesn't just run in this family--it gallops.
The story and opera leave open the question of whether Quint and Jessel are ghosts or nasty figments of the governess' imagination. Weigl obviously wants it both ways. His new prologue establishes the servants' reality before the governess appears.
In Britten's prologue, however, Weigl makes the whole opera seem the governess' hallucination: We hear the guardian described as "a young man, bold, offhand and gay . . . gallant and handsome," and see Vladimir Muller in the role, who is none of these things.
In any case, Weigl's direction soon descends to a matter of showcasing oppressively lush decor and decorative photographic effects. The spectral Quint (Juraj Kukura) poses like a male hustler against every balustrade in the Balkans. His co-conspirator, Jessel (Emilia Vasaryova) trails gauze and dry-ice smoke as if auditioning to replace Elvira, mistress of the dark. The governess (Magdalena Vasaryova) is properly anguished and sympathetic but, as black brambles begin to creep up her white gowns, she too becomes a couturier cliche.
Finally, as the doomed boy Miles, young Michael Gulyas is so provocatively directed, shot and clothed that Britten's (and James') ambivalent intentions utterly vanish and we witness something approaching a paean to Tadzian jailbait. "Great Performances" indeed.