February 9th, 2009 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Amnis, Axis, Caulis, Collis:' Portland Opera's The Turn of the Screw

Tags: opera
Turn of the ScrewPortland Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw borrows Hollywood scare tactics from horror classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Children of the Corn—elements like cloak-and-dagger chiaroscuro lighting and children behaving supernaturally—and the result is frankly chilling. But stage director Nicholas Muni's relentless pursuit of gasps and shrieks turns out to be both a blessing and a curse to Britten's masterwork.

The Plot: The Turn of the Screw is based on a novella of the same name by Henry James. Both renderings begin when a young lady arrives at Bly, an English country estate where she is to be governess. But something is horribly amiss. Her two charges—a brother and sister called Miles and Flora—are haunted by the ghosts of two deceased servants. The more she learns about the sordid history of the place, the more the governess tries to protect the children from the apparently malevolent influence of the dead servants. But things aren't that simple. The children could be in league with the phantoms, or the plucky governess could be imagining everything.

This production is sure to engage even those ordinarily left cold by opera. It's suspenseful, visually interesting and sexually charged. Further, it demonstrates that stylized singing and visceral fear are not incompatible. Because let's face it: there just aren't that many ghost story operas (Britten's Owen Wingrave is another, as well as Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter), and to make opera scary really takes panache.

But in exchange for upping the horror quotient, Portland Opera must sacrifice much of the show's moral nuance. Audience members will come away from this production thinking that The Turn of the Screw is a tale about the battle between good and evil, but it's really not that simple.

Underneath its otherworldly surface, TOTS deals with the sexual awakening of its child characters—Miles in particular. The libretto (and James' narrative) concede that Miles has been exposed to sex by the now-deceased valet, Peter Quint. But it's much less apparent whether their trysts constitute outright evil—as the governess believes—or merely a threat to the prevailing morality of mid-century England, represented in the play by the Anglican Church, the school, the guardian, the housekeeper and the governess. What exactly, one wonders, are they guarding, keeping, governing?

The music reflects this ambiguity. Although the governess believes that Quint is diabolical, Britten resists using any explicitly sinister music (e.g. augmented 4ths/diminished 5ths) to accompany Quint's appearances in the opera. In fact, the instruments most associated with the ghostly valet are the celesta and the harp, traditionally associated with heaven, glamour, enchantment, childhood and innocence. To make this point even clearer, Britten uses almost the exact same notes (derived from the same theme) to express Quint's longing for the boy as he does to express the governess's protection and tutelage.

So the conflict depicted in TOTS is not quite between good and evil; rather, it's between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. On one side there are the buttoned-up, heteronormative forces of domesticity and order; on the other side there are the ungovernable, homoerotic forces of experimentation and growth. Initially, Miles straddles both worlds, but the governess won't have it; she is keen on preserving the boy's “innocence.” Ultimately, her insistence results in Miles' death: he can't survive without both aspects of himself.

But these finer points of meaning, which constitute the very center of the opera and the novella, are lost by an interpretation that insists on packing in as many gasps and shudders as it can. By using the children as spooky set-pieces—dressing them up, for instance, in absurd religious attire and sporting gear for the sake of a laugh and a shriek—the director strips them of their human dimension and thereby relieves the audience of its responsibility to figure out what the story means. These children, whose suggestively sexual antics are constant and nonspecific, are obviously under the influence of an evil ghost. So it's a ghost story. No need to parse.

This reading does have a few strengths, notwithstanding. Traditionally, Flora's narrative has seemed far subservient to Miles': in most productions she serves merely as a foil to her more charismatic brother. But through some creative staging and a very strong performance by Joelle Harvey, the role of Flora has been elevated to near-parity with that of Miles. That's accomplished principally by emphasizing the bizarre and elliptical relationship between Flora and the ghost of Ms. Jessel. Visually, the theme is reinforced by the imaginative way Jessel's body language mimics the movements of Flora's funereal doll.

The Set: On a large scale, the mise en scene resembles nothing so much as the inside of Dracula's coffin: stark black wood alternates with pleated crimson satin. Within this funereal frame, it's all English neoclassic grandeur, all the time. It works well. Set pieces include a sculptured grand piano, a patrician marble bust and an enormous chess set whose pieces take the form of African safari animals: rhinos, elephants, giraffes.

A few words about that chess set. It's beautiful; it's featured prominently in all the promo posters; and absolutely everybody who sees the opera is going to want one. On the other hand, it's extra-textual and frankly irrelevant. It's visible in every single scene, but is never mentioned, hardly ever used, and brings nothing to bear on the opera. It's just eye candy.

The Vocals: Underwhelming. Brenda Harris' soprano is too muddy and imprecise for the Governess, and her delivery isn't sufficiently differentiated from that of the other two adult women characters: Mrs. Grose (Judith Forst) and Miss Jessel (Mary Phillips). As previously mentioned, Joelle Harvey does a bang-up job as Flora, but Michael Kepler Meo (Miles) doesn't have any opera experience, and it shows. He lacks volume and tends to trail off at the ends of phrases. That's a problem in such a central role.

On the other hand, Ryan MacPherson's pure, yearning tenor brings a much-needed sensuality to the role of Peter Quint, and it's a pleasure to hear. He especially shines on the melismatas in Act I, when he calls out to Miles.

The Orchestra: In many ways, the show's standout performance is given by the chamber orchestra. The opera consists of sixteen short scenes, each of which contains a variation on a single theme—a tonal progression of fourths and minor thirds that, together, seem to turn like a screw. Conductor Christopher Larkin does a great job differentiating these variations, especially a haunting cavatina at the beginning of Act II and the final confrontation, a passacaglia in A.

Although Larkin takes some cinematic ritards that I don't quite agree with—and although the harpist seemed to get exhausted during an extended ostinato in Act I—in general the music is thrilling, with individual phrases seeming to hang in the air like candles in the night.

Altogether, it's a worthy show, and worth a look. Portland Opera may have trampled on some of Britten's and James' subtler shades of meaning, but the opera is robust and can stand a little trampling. And as far as spectacle goes, it can't be beat.

Portland Opera's production of The Turn of the Screw plays at 7:30 pm on Feb. 6, 12 & 14, and at 2:00 pm on Feb. 8. Click here for tickets.
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