Dallas — The Dallas Opera recently completed a run of four performances of Benjamin Britten’s eerie operatic thriller, The Turn of the Screw. We were fortunate to be able to engage an exceptional cast, two of whom were making their role debuts. TDO Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement expertly guided each performance from the podium, further cementing her reputation as a leading interpreter of 20th and 21st century opera.
For readers who have not seen the opera, it is based on a novella by Henry James, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper —an accomplished British librettist who wrote several libretti for Britten. The story tells of a young, naïve governess who is engaged by a mysterious guardian to take care of two children in a country house in Bly. She meets the boy and the girl, named Miles and Flora, and also the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Her time in the house begins innocently enough, but soon thereafter the ghost story begins. There are two mysterious characters, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who share a sordid past with apparent ties to both the house and the children. The opera is skillfully constructed to build tension over its two acts—scene by scene and moment by moment—as more and more frightening details about the past emerge, with tragic consequences for the current residents of Bly.
The opera premiered in 1954 in the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, during the Biennale Festival, with scenery designed by famed British artist John Piper, the husband of the librettist. Despite its artistic qualities and status as the second most frequently performed English-language opera in the world, The Turn of the Screw remains relatively under-performed in the United States, and therefore less well known. One audience member even asked me if I had commissioned the work. I was particularly excited about bringing this opera to Dallas, as—quite remarkably—it had never been performed in the 60-year history of the company.
The opera is scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 (string quintet, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, percussion and piano/celesta) and six singers. Every young composer who aspires to write for a large orchestra should examine how strikingly innovative the work is, structurally, tonally, orchestrally, and dramatically, even employing just this small number of players. Two of the six vocal roles are the children, Miles and Flora. In our production, the girl Flora was performed by Ashley Emerson, a petite soprano who sings with the confidence of a fully developed singer while acting appropriately young and girlish on stage. In programming this work, I was determined to have Miles performed by a boy soprano, to fulfill the original intentions of the composer. (Some productions employ a young woman to play this role, too). We were very lucky to cast Oliver Nathanielsz, who at the tender age of 13 is already a seasoned and accomplished performer. Part of my motivation for wanting to engage a boy soprano for this role was because the tone color of a boy soprano is strikingly different from that of a girl or a woman. The other members of this international ensemble included Emma Bell, William Burden, Dolora Zajick, and Alexandra LoBianco—a seasoned and talented cast who delivered both great singing and acting.
One of the many innovations in this powerful opera is its structure. The opera includes a prologue (which sets the context for the work), a theme, and then 16 scenes split evenly between two acts. The first scene is proceeded by the theme, and then each subsequent scene is proceeded by a variation on that same theme—15 variations in all. In an homage to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Britten created a 12-tone row as the theme. (In a 12-tone row, each pitch is used once, and only once, as an organizing device distinct from traditional chordal harmonies). Skillful composer that he was, Britten devised a theme that, although 12 tone, echoes traditional harmonies and the “circle of fifths” (a common harmonic sequence dating back to the Baroque Era).
Having immersed myself fully in this work, and sensing again its extraordinary power and musical writing, I wondered aloud many times why it is not more frequently performed here. I think there are at least four reasons. First, in a world where the name of the composer and the title of the opera are the primary drivers of all-important single ticket sales, this opera suffers from a composer who is less well-known in the U.S., and a title that is sinister and confusing. The “turn” has several meanings, but one is that the level of musical and dramatic tension increases as the work progresses, just like a wood screw increases the tension between two pieces of wood as it is tightened. The second factor is the dark subject matter. No matter how sensitively handled in the production, the hints of child abuse by the evil Quint, and possibly even the former governess, Miss Jessel, not to mention the tragic death of Miles at the end of the opera, make for a very dark evening (similar in some ways to Alban Berg’s extraordinary opera Wozzeck with its tragic denouement). Third, the work requires an exceptionally talented boy soprano, with the intelligence to learn difficult music and staging, who is also a fine actor, with a clear voice that can carry in an opera house without amplification. Lastly, it is hard to develop an effective, well-paced production of this work because of its unique musical structure, in which the scenes in which the action takes place are interspersed with the theme and 15 variations. If one isn’t careful, it’s easy for the action to flag in these numerous interludes, brilliantly composed as they are, leading to audience fatigue and loss of dramatic tension.
For this opera, we rented the production from Glyndebourne in the U.K., which pairs seamlessly with the underlying musical structure to keep the audience engaged through the many variations, sustains the dramatic tension, and provides coherence to the opera. Directed by Francesca Gilpin, the set relies on two concentric turntables, which bring furniture and props on and off the stage through a series of doors; a massive window that pivots and turns, and creates different scenes such as the glass conservatory of the house, the parish church, and lake; and, in the opening scene following the Prologue, projections that convey the train journey of the Governess from London to Bly.
The opera was a particular joy to hear in the Winspear Opera House. Although the work is scored for chamber orchestra, Britten creates widely varying textures, from the whole ensemble playing together, to much smaller sub-ensembles. He also often employs solo writing for individual instruments, and I was particularly struck by how well the solo woodwinds carried in the Winspear. Near the end of the opera, when the string quintet was playing, the work had the intimacy of a chamber music concert, and it was easy to forget that one was sitting in an opera house with a seating capacity of 2,200.
With so many different scenes and variations, it is hard to pick out favorite moments, but a few remain powerfully with me, even two weeks after the close of the run. One is the scene in Act I in which the Governess begins to sense all is not well on this remote country estate; in fact, she has just seen a mysterious man (who turns out to be Quint). She informs Mrs. Grose, who sings “Dear God, is there no end to his dreadful ways?” Ms. Zajick’s powerful mezzo voice brings the whole audience to attention with the strength of her singing and acting. A second favorite moment is the scene in which the Governess (we never learn her actual name), having decided to flee Bly, encounters the ghost of Miss Jessel sitting in her room—at her writing desk, in fact. Miss Jessel offers the chilling threat that “I shall come closer, closer, and more often,” and that she will be “…waiting, waiting, hov’ring, ready for the child.” Near the end of the opera, Miles is playing the piano, which creates the perfect diversion for Flora to give Mrs. Grose the slip. Our Miles did a superb job of miming the piano playing, which was actually being performed in the pit, and conveying that he was increasingly possessed by the ghost of Peter Quint.
This production was one of the most complex we have undertaken at The Dallas Opera, probably on a par with the world premiere of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest in 2015. I particularly want to thank our Technical Director Drew Field, the Stage Management team, and the Stage Crew for their outstanding work in preparing and operating this production. Watching the crew at work backstage was like watching a separate performance, as they moved the furniture and props on and off the turntables through scene after scene, under extremely tight time pressure. I am very proud that the company has tackled, so successfully, this extraordinary jewel of the operatic repertoire.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in TheaterJones.com. (Note: As of Feb. 2017, it will run on Fridays; and the May 2017 column will run on the second Friday.)
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