Turn of the Screw: Opera Review

Copyright 2011 Robert Millard
Artfully focused and beautifully sung production of Britten's chamber opera.

Henry James' 1898 novella of the same name -- with its ambiguous psycho-sexual connections and reverberations -- are brought to life in the latest production of Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation, directed by Francesca Gilpin.

The psycho-sexual connections and reverberations that remain ambiguous, even hypothetical in Henry James' 1898 novella Turn of the Screw are brought disturbingly to the core of Benjamin Britten's 1954 operatic adaptation, which is the beneficiary of a meticulous and very fine production on view at the Dorothy Chandler through the end of the month. Britten has figured frequently in the L.A. Opera's repertory for more than 20 years and this staging represents a head start in the local celebration of the centenary of the English composer's birth, which will continue until the date arrives in two years.

Most famously adapted for another medium as the film The Innocents in 1961, James' story focuses on a new governess forced to contend with the ghostly presences of two malign figures who, even in death, maintain a sinister hold on the two children with whose education she is charged. In this production, originated the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, director Jonathan Kent (his work reproduced here by Francesca Gilpin) moves the action nearly a century to the late 1940s, which at once sweeps the haunted house-genre cobwebs from the material and creates a closer, creepier proximity to modern-day pedophilia cases.

Adding to the sense of modernity are Paul Brown's striking minimalist sets (abetted by a pair of revolving stage sections that provide elegant transitions between the piece's 16 scenes), the adroit use of film footage in the prologue and opening scene and the consistently wonderful stage pictures that, despite the cast of just six (backed by a 13-piece chamber orchestra led with sympathetic precision by James Conlon), maintain intimacy while still filling the stage of the large hall.

James scholars have endlessly debated as to exactly what went on at Bly House between the orphan brother and sister Miles and Flora and the now-dead valet Peter Quint and former governess Miss Jessel, and whether the visions of the latter two are mere figments of the imagination of the new governess or something more pervasive. For Britten and his librettist Myfanway Piper, however, there was no question: “Quint was free with everyone,” the housekeeper Mrs. Grose laments to the new governess. “He had his will morn and night.” Yeats' poetic phrase, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” is employed for emphasis and, in one bracing scene, Miles' Latin lesson recitation is filled with innuendo-laden double entendres. Here, Quint and Miss Jessel are not just spectres but full-voiced singing entities whose continued impact on the living remains profound and unignorable.

The dissonant aspects of Britten's music create, as always, a certain distance from and intellectualization of the emotional context but, at the same time, serve to sharpen the occasional bursts of pure lyrical beauty. All six cast members well suit their roles physically and sing them superbly. Carrying the biggest burden is soprano Patricia Racette, who beautifully conveys the pure intentions of the unnamed governess who adores the kids and whose own relative inexperience ill-prepares her for the revelations in store. Tenor William Burden makes for an imposing Quint, while Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose, Tamara Wilson as Miss Jessel and Ashley Emerson as Flora are all more than capable.

Of special note, however, is 12-year-old Michael Kepler Meo, who has played Miles before in Portland and Houston and represents vocal and physical perfection in this key role. Given his age, he won't be able to sing this treble part (originated in 1954 by David Hemmings, later of Blow Up fame) much longer and it can only be hoped that, once his voice changes, he can segue effectively into another register for a adult career.

Venue: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Through March 30)
Production: L.A. Opera
Music: Benjamin Britten
Text: Myfanway Piper, based on the novella by Henry James
Cast: William Burden, Patricia Racette, Ashley Emerson, Michael Kepler Meo, Ann Murray, Tamara Wilson
Original production director: Jonathan Kent
Director: Francesca Gilpin
Conductor: James Conlon
Scenery and costume designer: Paul Brown
Original lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Lighting designer: David Manion

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