The ceremony of innocence is drowned...” So sing the ghosts of Peter Quint and the erstwhile governess Miss Jessell in Benjamin Britten’s haunting chamber opera, which had its production premiere at Garsington Opera.

It could be argued that ghosts don’t sing, let alone speak, but then neither does anyone else speak in Henry James’ chilling tale. And it is the genius of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto that brings all six characters in the tale to life, so to speak.

Piper would once again deal with the problem of manifesting the mute characters of James’ story, just as miraculously in Britten’s later, and last, opera Death in Venice, based on the novella of Thomas Mann. She succeeded marvellously, and inspired some of Britten’s most sublime orchestral colours in both operas (in this case from just 13 players) with a score of such richness and ingenuity that produces sonorities more usually associated with bigger orchestral forces.

Above this panoply of astonishing inventiveness, Britten floats his characters vocally, in melodic lines such as the melismatic line he gives to the villain of the piece – the master’s dead valet, Peter Quint – serpentine and blood curdling one might say, admirably executed by tenor Ed Lyon, whose vocal agility was matched superbly by Sophie Bevan as the new governess.

Supported by an equally strong cast: Kathleen Wilkinson as the housekeeper Mrs Grose; Katherine Broderick as former governess Miss Jessell; the girl Flora, Adrianna Forbes Dorant; and the boy Miles, the young, talented Leo Jemison.

Richard Farnes, obviously in love with the score, drew superb playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra. Louisa Muller provided a convincing production of this difficult narrative, helped by Chris Oram’s designs and the atmospheric lighting of Malcolm Rippeth. Two caveats in this particular respect – the use of Garsington pavilion’s natural lighting meant this sinister tale began in bright sunlight pouring on to the stage, but as the evening wore on into twilight, appropriate shadows of the trees provided the more sombre and claustrophobic atmosphere of the the tale. Secondly: the richness and subtlety of Britten’s extraordinary orchestral colours were sometimes lost in the very openness of the auditorium which is such a pleasure to experience.

However, the overall impact of James’ extraordinary, haunting, story was never in doubt, in the hands of the musical genius of the composer. Oddly, it was his librettist Piper, who with her artist husband, John Piper, lived in a Chiltern valley not far from the glorious Wormsley estate, blessedly now the site of Garsington Opera, who suggested James’ story as the unlikely subject of an opera.

Her use of Miles’ conjugation of the Latin verb Malo, given to him as a plangent melody of a simplicity in contrast to Quint’s tantalising, beckoning vocal line, is really the pivot of the opera when he sings it: Malo, Malo, I would rather be, Malo Malo: an apple tree, Malo Malo: than a naughty boy, Malo Malo: in adversity.

The refrain, repeated now by the grief-stricken governess, as she hugs the lifeless body of Miles to her, is shattering in its effect as the opera ends.