As the Screw Turns, Britten Style
July 20, 2013
The ghosts speak up in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a 1954 chamber opera based on the classic Henry James novella. But it’s not so much what the voluble dead valet Peter Quint and deceased governess Miss Jessel have to say that proves so haunting. It’s the way they say it, in a sinuous, melisma-rich embodiment of the supernatural played off against the restless, eerily explicit narrative of the orchestral score.
It makes no difference how stilted Myfanwy Piper’s libretto occasionally seems. Nor does the somewhat clotted staging of West Edge Opera’s production at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater prevent the musical and dramatic spell from taking hold. The Turn of the Screw gets under the listener’s skin and sets off shudders in the blood.
West Edge mounted the two-act piece in welcome tribute to the composer’s centennial. Britten (1913–1976) poised his James adaptation on a teetering sharp edge between innocence and experience, sublimation and sexuality, optimism and despair, good and evil, tonality and dissonance. It’s an unfolding marvel, at one accessible and forbidding, seductive and grave.
A torquing 12-tone Turn theme swirls up and recedes and rises again, in what musicologist Lloyd Whitesell calls the opera’s “spiraling harmonic circuits.” The timpani mutter an ominous pulse beat long before anything has gone amiss. The bassoon does the same. A celesta and harp add shivery highlights. The story’s two children sing sweet ballads and a swordfighting song. The boy, Miles, plays an antic, skewed piano recital. The adults, alive and dead, sing over each other and into the deep-seated fears in ensembles both voluptuous and tense.
The story tracks the naïve, unnamed governess (Laura Bohn), en route from a narrative prologue to her new posting at the rural Bly House. There she meets her two young charges. Larkin Barnard-Bahn played Flora on opening night. Milo Boland was Miles. (Both performers share their parts with others for the three-performance run.)
Mark Streshinsky’s production makes ample use of designer Jeremy Knight’s video and still projections. There are shots of the English countryside and the imposing facade of Bly House as the governess arrives. Various rooms and assorted lake, castle, and garden vistas supply an extensive tour of the mansion and grounds.
They also conjure up the ghosts of Peter Quint (gorgeously sung and acted by Daniel Curran in video apparition form) and Miss Jessel (an overwrought performance, both vocally and video-dramatically, by Buffy Baggott).
The music drama finally trumps the theatrical impediments. When it fully takes hold in the second act, Turn is transporting in every sense.
The use of projections runs a considerable risk. Effective as some of the images are, as Quint and Jessel materialize and dematerialize before our eyes, the projections also both dwarf and sometimes overliteralize these ambiguous visions. Things that may or may not be the product of the governess’ fevered imagination take on a billboard-sized dimension that can actually distort and diminish their impact.
Especially problematic are the slideshow recollections Miles has of his days with Quint. As he stands and stares at the huge screen, he repeatedly nullifies the three-dimensional stage space. For all the lush visual upholstery the projections provide, they also work against the psychological complexity and physical environment. In a stage that’s left cluttered with furniture, the locales blur together in not always productive ways. The lighting is moody and shadowy to a fault.
Yet the music drama finally trumps the theatrical impediments. When it fully takes hold in the second act, Turn is transporting in every sense. With the adroit woodwinds leading the way, under Jonathan Khuner’s baton, the orchestra needled and insinuated, exulted and despaired, over the proceedings onstage.
The young performers … gradually owned their roles and became more natural and vocally expressive.
Bohn, whose governess was too self-contained and sometimes sharp-voiced in the first act, became both deeper and more vulnerable as the night progressed. The young performers, who seemed tentative and deliberate early on, gradually owned their roles and became more natural and vocally expressive. Boland sang several of his solos with a kind of steely abstraction. His final scene was vivid and sad. Jillian Khuner was serviceable as the fretful housekeeper, Mrs. Grose.
There’s a patch of syncopation near the opera’s end. The jauntiness is almost too much to take, a fateful dance of childhood’s end on the brink of the abyss. He’s growing up, Miles tells his governess. There’s so much he wants to do. You can almost hear hearts breaking on both sides of the stage apron.
Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.