Without a doubt one of the best small opera companies in the Bay Area (and there are so many of them!), San Francisco Lyric Opera, opened its production of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw on Friday at this season’s new venue, the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason.
Turn of the Screw is one of the chamber opera gems of the 20th century. Within it Britten makes full use of his brilliance, evoking atmospheric color through a 13-member ensemble to create a score that is eerie, dramatic, dissonant and pastoral. His music is well matched by Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, which uses traditional nursery rhymes along with text by W. B. Yeats to realize Henry James’ congested and shadowy Victorian language.
The opera partakes of many of the characteristics of Britten’s other opera work, but in my mind is most connected to his Midsummer Night’s Dream with its haunting lyricism and exquisitely delicate rendering of subterranean longings that lie outside the grasp of heartier human emotions and likewise are unaffected by the realm of everyday business.
Both stage director Heather Carolo and resident set designer Jean-François Revon fell in sync with the opera’s mood in their artistic choices. Within her characters’ movements and self-presentations, Carolo preserved the distant dignity and repressed imagination that create the story’s mystery, and Revon reached into the English landscape, garnering from its enigmatic stillness a set of images that visually mirrored the music.
The actual physical set was simply a round platform like the stone ruin of an old castle, with a fragment of wall rising on one side. Onto this platform, women dressed as 19th-century maids moved tables, chairs and desks in and out of the opera’s action during the interludes that separate the 16 scenes. Behind the spare set, a video image changed the setting: beginning as a forest scene, moving to pastoral river settings and then to interior windows through which the landscape could be seen as a hovering natural force that soothed with its beauty but contained within it an separated and unreachable isolation. The final desolate change within the projections dissolved the house’s windows into the stone crosses of an ancient graveyard.
It was the perfect setting for ghosts.
A particularly haunting moment occurred when the young boy, Miles, sung angelically by Brooks Fisher, sang “Malo,” the Latin mnemonic for schoolchildren that mixes the meanings of “malo” as the adjective “bad” and the verb “to prefer” with the scientific designation for “apple.” In this pivotal moment of the opera, only Miles was bathed in light, seated center stage, while the governess, the housekeeper and his sister faced him from different shadowed parts of the stage.
(Just a little stage gossip: In the original production, the part of Miles was sung by boy soprano David Hemmings, who went on to work in film and directing and is perhaps most memorable to American audiences as the photographer in Antonioni’s Blowup.)
Anja Strauss sang a pleasingly sweet though rather cool governess, and Kathleen Moss was the fussy but warmhearted housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, her large, richly colored mezzo grounding the lighter voices on stage. Trey Costerisan, with an excellent tenor voice that occasionally ran its own emotional course, and soprano Laura Bruckman, who used her fine lyric soprano to project an otherwordly craving for human passions, were the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, returned to possess the children. Madelaine Matej was darling as Flora, mixing charm with sudden outbreaks of anger that were horrifying and childlike.
The house was only half full, and this production deserved much better. See it if you can! You’ll be glad you did.
SF Lyric Opera’s Turn of the Screw continues at Cowell Theater on June 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call 415-345-7575 or visit www.sflyricopera.org.
Originally published in the Piedmont Post