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Opera review: Los Angeles Opera 'The Turn of the Screw'

March 13, 2011 |  6:30 pm

Turn
Although a putative ghost story, Benjamin Britten's “The Turn of the Screw” is not a supernatural opera. Spirits serve only to remind us of ourselves -- our forbidden desires and our apprehension of otherness.

Turn-of-the-screw In 1991, Los Angeles Opera mounted a nightmarishly unnerving production by Jonathan Miller that showed all the characters at their worst in this 1954 opera of smothering sexual insecurity and the tragic loss of innocence. Now, 20 years later, the company has made something of a clean sweep with Jonathan Kent's production imported from Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England.

In fact, as mounted at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night by Francesca Gilpin, the new production all but sweeps the most fevered psychological dirt under the rug.

The English countryside where a governess comes to tend to two children is usually treated as an overgrown, claustrophobic setting for homophobia. But Paul Brown’s set is airy and antiseptic. The libretto is updated to the '50s. A large modern window stands for a tidy house, in which we see Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, vacuum. A gnarly large root, displayed like a specimen in a museum, represents the outdoors.

Britten tended to like highly distinctive voices, but Saturday’s capable cast, led by a passionate Patricia Racette, did an excellent job of seeming and sounding almost ordinary. Likewise, James Conlon urged from a chamber orchestra of 13 the kind of big, blended sound that could carry. But it was a sound necessarily more big-boned and conventional than creepy. Britten treated each instrument as a peculiarly  distinctive musical character, but a more acoustically immediate room would be needed for that to be better felt.

Turn2 Still, a veneer of conventionality is not an ineffective way to observe the screw turn on convention. The Governess comes to tend young Miles and Flora. She finds happy children with whom she can sing songs. Then the ghosts appear in the form of the former manservant, Peter Quint, and governess, Miss Jessel. Quint “was free” with Miles and with Miss Jessel, too. She drowned and then he died.

Britten underlines his theme at the beginning of the second act. Together Quint and Miss Jessel sing: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Miles is a precocious pianist. He doesn’t fit in at school, and Quint has returned to remind Miles that he is an outsider. The Governess hopes to save Miles, and we are left to wonder whether the ghosts are the fabric of her imagination.

Either way, a child is doomed. Whether it is because of his own forbidden desires or her hysteria, Miles cannot be accepted in this society. Britten tells us so in his music.

The sound may be strange, but the structure has the formal precision of watchmaking. A theme and variations carries through from beginning through the 16 short scenes, each variation being another irreversible turn of the screw.

The production never quite dares creep into Britten’s darkest corners. Galpin’s biography in the program notes that she has recently returned from Rwanda where she helped underprivileged children “foster self-confidence and the ability to express emotions in a positive way.”

That’s what the Governess would like from Miles, but Miles knows she would never be able to hear it if he did. Michael Kepler Meo, an impressively confident boy soprano with an eloquent musicality and a becoming stage manner, was a vulnerable Miles. Britten's score and Myfanwy Piper’s libretto suggest a boy who is more a threat, but this Miles was the modern innocent abused and wounded, seeking comfort. 

That played into Racette's Governess, whose hysteria proved compelling theater, if on the all-purpose side. She seemed the sort who could have been done in by just about anything. Both she and Ann Murray (Mrs. Grose) have large voices, and although they enunciated the English text admirably, they also produced a vibrato-rich blend in ensemble passages that undid them. Ashley Emerson was a striking Flora, the little angel who isn’t such a little angel.

William Burden was a suave Quint and also sang the prologue with polish if without the curious edge characteristic of Britten tenors. Tamara Wilson's Miss Jessel was more a spook, coming across as having just been dredged from the lake.

An odder, angrier, more mysterious “Turn of the Screw” can leave an audience too shaken to applaud. Saturday was a night to cheer the cleverness of a director and designer and the devotion of singers, a virtuoso instrumental ensemble and Conlon's engaged conducting.

Britten will be no small thing at L.A. Opera for a while. Conlon has said that he plans to make Britten a priority as we approach the composer’s centennial in 2013. And this “Turn of the Screw” indicates that he means to make much of that priority.

RELATED:

Michael Kepler Meo prepares for his Los Angeles Opera debut

-- Mark Swed

"The Turn of the Screw," Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. March 17, 25 and 30; 2 p.m. March 20 and 27; $20-$270; (213) 972-8001 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (213) 972-8001      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or www.laopera.com. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.

Photos: At top, William Burden (Quint), left, and Michael Kepler Meo (Miles) in Los Angeles Opera's new production of Britten's "The Turn of the Screw." Middle: Ashley Emerson as Flora. At bottom, Patricia Racette as the Governess. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times. More photos of Los Angeles Opera's "The Turn of the Screw."

 

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