West Edge Opera’s lovely version of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” opened Saturday night at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater. The production was gracefully managed—just as Britten’s opera, with libretto by Myfawny Piper, is a sensitive and eerie rendering of the well-known ghost story written by Henry James in 1898.
The story tells of a young and impressionable governess who accepts a position caring for two orphans, Flora and Miles. Living in Bly, a grand but isolated home in Essex, in eastern England, with only the children and a good-hearted but rather dim housekeeper named Mrs Grose, the unnamed governess begins to see the ghosts. In James’ novella, the ghosts, a manservant named Peter Quint and his lover, the former governess Miss Jessell, are never quite realized—lots of ink has been spent by critics trying to determine whether the dead lovers are real ghosts battling over the souls of the children or simply the hallucinations of a neurotic and sexually repressed governess.
Britten and his librettist are on the side of the ghosts. They exist. And they invoke subtle, complex and unearthly music in their struggle with the flesh-and-blood women over the moral control of the children. Produced in 1956 at La Fenice in Venice, “Turn of the Screw” was the last of Britten’s chamber operas, but his eeriest and most sonically delicate.
In her descriptions of the opera’s writing, Piper comments that the first thing she and Britten did was to analyze James’ story in order to determine what was absolutely necessary to its telling. They concluded that they needed a mind-boggling 16 scenes to convey the plot and mystery of what is a complicated and nuanced weaving of innuendo. Each of the scenes—8 in each act—is initiated by a musical interlude. A handy set of opportunities for any stage director.
And stage director Mark Streshinsky and his team have used the opportunities to fine effect. As the backdrop to a completely dark stage and bits of tasteful furniture, the sets are comprised of some 24 or so small panels hung as a grid, across which are projected interior shots of Bly and its gardens. Video designer Jeremy Knight did an excellent job of recreating the greenness of England and the grandness of its more aristocratic houses. At crucial moments these panels also become a screen on which are projected the ghosts: first as stills, which are Miles’ memories of the seducer Peter Quint, and then as real-time videos (the singers filmed in the pit during the actions) as the ghosts entice the children, hungry for their human warmth.
The ending of the opera took an unusual slant. The governess struggles with Milo, exhorting him to name who or what it is he waits for, while on the background screens the ghost of Quint warns Milo to be wary, to not reveal him. In the final moments, the governess mouths what Quint sings. By doing so, she becomes Quint, suggesting that the struggle is about the evil of all adults who coerce and control children, not simply the evil of a sexually seductive male who is held at bay by a protective mother figure.
The singers did a top-notch job. Soprano Laura Bohn as the governess, Gillian Khuner as Mrs Grose. Merola alumnus Daniel Curran sang Peter Quint and was joined by wonderful mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott. Milo Boland and Larkin Barnard-Bahn sang superbly as Miles and Flora. Conductor Jonathan Kuhner led his 12 musicians in splendid support. This is a production well worth seeing and hearing, revealing as it does all the power, subtlety, and innocence that is characteristic of Britten’s best work.
Photo: Milo Boland is Miles, Laura Bohn, the Governess, and Daniel Curran, the ghost of Peter Quint, in West Edge Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw’. Photo credit is mellopix