Dallas — Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw opened Friday night, presented by the Dallas Opera at the Winspear Opera House, in a production that is both cleverly conceived and subtly sophisticated. It is a haunting opera—literally. Two of the characters are ghosts and worse, are of the perverted and evil variety.
Of course, the author of the original 1898 novella, Henry James, is famous for not telling the reader anything directly. He leaves it to the reader to connect the dots. The opera makes the ghosts real by casting them as a tenor and mezzo-soprano.
Here is the slim plot: When Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel were alive, we surmise that they sexually abused the two children, Miles and Flora. Now, as ghosts, they return to take up where they left when, so inconveniently, they died. Only the children and their new governess can see them, leaving the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, questioning the sanity of all involved. In a dramatic ending, Miles yells “Peter Quint, you devil!” and (spoiler alert, in case you haven’t read the story, seen any of the many film or theater adaptations, or don’t know opera) expires in the Governess’ arms.
In the gothic novella, it is not clear if the two ghosts are really there or that the Governess is a bit bonkers. Literary critics argue over this as passionately as scientists tussle over the expanding universe theory. However, all attempts to “explain” the novella eventually come to nothing and the consensus ends up that it is (shocking news) just a ghost story. However, there were, and still are, dueling editorials in the literary magazines and classrooms around the world. After all, James wrote other ghost stories. In my opinion, he wanted his reader to wonder about this conundrum until the last ambiguous page.
Britten’s opera sort of solves the quandary, by casting the two ghosts with real people (Anyway, singing ghosts are hard to find these days). However, in a hat tip to James’ novella, he tries to leave the question open a crack to differing interpretations. But real ghosts or not, they are a tortured pair of spirits racked by guilt, but tied to the earth by their desire for the two children. And, like the creepy atmosphere of novella, Britten hangs a sinister Halloweenish cloud over the music as it unfolds.
The opera is highly concentrated. The composer sets his opera in the 1850s. However, the production staff gives it a modern-day setting. Personally, I am still debating if the time shift works or not. Surely, in this pharmaceutical era, the children or the governess, or all three, would be on Prozac. “Seeing ghosts again? Here dear, take your meds.” However, bringing it up-to-date doesn’t do any real damage.
A major part of the success of this production (the first time Dallas Opera has done this title) is Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement. She had a score, and occasionally turned a page, but I rarely noticed her looking at it. This opera is permanently fixed in her musical DNA, and every phrase, if only just a few notes, were perfectly shaped. The opera is scored for a chamber orchestra of only 13 players. On many occasions, the already small orchestration drops down to a few instruments playing, and occasionally, Britten only uses a single instrument. However, you don’t notice the reduced orchestra in her hands. More players would have just been in her way as she cast an eerie musical spell over the proceedings.
British soprano Emma Bell, as the governess, is a singer who defies classification. She has made her career, thus far, with Mozart but recently sang two of Wagner’s lighter roles, such as Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. She is a spinto soprano with lyric overtone that is, ultimately, headed to heavier roles. Part of the reason for her success in such a wide variety of roles is that she has remarkable control over her huge voice. She delivers thrilling high notes and perfectly focused soft ones. But, best of all, she is always believable as the maybe crazy/maybe observant Governess.
One surprise was the opportunity to hear one of the world’s top Verdian mezzos, Dolora Zajick, as Mrs. Grose, the bewildered housekeeper. Zajick moderates her powerful voice, such as the trumpet we hear blast in her portrayal of two witches: Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Here, in a reversal, she is the only character who doesn’t see the witch. She makes certain that her voice fits perfectly in the small ensemble and offers a clear difference in sound to Bell’s equally formidable soprano.
All of Britten’s tenor roles were written for the unique voice of his life partner Peter Pears. Thus, tenors of all fachs (voice types), have struggled with all the roles. As Peter Quint, and the prologue, tenor William Burden does about as good a job as I have ever heard (except for Pears himself, of course). His repertoire is remarkably diverse: from Orphée (Orphée et Eurydice) and Edgardo, in Lucia di Lammermoor to Don Jose in Carmen and Peléas in Pelléas et Mélisande. Of course, there are several Britten operas in the list also. This puts him in a fach of his own: The Versatile Singer—one who has the range from lyric to dramatic tenor. As Peter Quint, he lets his full voice loose, and is menacing even while being gracious.
Alexandra LoBianco dramatically portrays his partner in ghostly crime, Miss Jessel. She is a dramatic soprano at the start of a major career. Her European stage debut with Wiener Staatsoper, performing the part of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, only occurred last year (2016). Her character, Miss Jessel, is the most tortured soul in this opera that is filled with desperate people, and she doesn’t hold back in her final scene of ultimate desperation. Her voice is different enough from Bell’s, and even Zajick’s, to always discern who sings what.
Casting the two children is always a problem. Britten writes punishing music for two young singers to negotiate. In this production, both singers do a fine job of playing the roles. As Miles, Oliver Nathanielsz has a clear boy soprano voice that carries over the orchestration and whose intonation is spot on. As his equally conflicted sister, Flora, soprano Ashley Emerson is small enough in stature to be believable, but her voice sounds like a young professional. It is especially noticeable when singing with Nathanielsz’s prepubescent sound.
The setting of the opera is another problem. The opera was originally written to be performed in a small theater, but requires space to create the spaciousness of an impressive country estate. Also, the musical series of tonal/atonal variations, in between scenes, wears after a while.
Director Francesca Gilpin and set and costume designer Paul Brown’s set fixes both of these problems ingenuously (this production comes from Britain's Glyndebourne Festival Opera). Here, the opera takes place in a box of laminated panels. Whether compressed for the opening scene on a train or expanded to frame the entire stage, it still feels claustrophobic and contained. A huge set of clear doors topped with windows moves in almost all directions to create the various scenes the opera requires. It has the additional advantage of throwing fantastical and supernatural reflections on the walls and even in the audience.
A turntable moves in between each scene, bringing in the set decorations required by the next scene and getting rid of the ones from the previous scene. The genius of this arrangement is that the audience has something fascinating to watch during the otherwise static variations, brilliantly composed but a little langweilig, that Britten uses to separate the scenes.
What looks like a major tree brace hangs over the proceedings. Sometimes it looks like a flying ghost or the skeleton of some large prehistoric bird. However, near the end, we see it fully lit and realize that it just a tree branch. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the reality of the ghosts, what appears to be something bizarre turns out to be quite ordinary.