There’s nothing like a good opera quickie fraught with sexual repression. Top that with rich psychological drama accompanied by one of the most beautiful, haunting scores in musical history, and you’ve got an irresistible package.
The Opera Theatre of Yale College’s (OTYC) production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” doesn’t screw around with fluffy arias and choruses. The opera’s taut storyline, based on the eponymous Henry James novella, captivates with the same chilling intensity as the urging music from the 12-piece Opera Theatre Orchestra.
In the show, the governess (Claire Owen ’04) is charged to care for the niece and nephew of an absentee gentleman on the condition that she is never to trouble him. Agreeing to these terms, she packs her bags for Bly Manor in the English countryside. Upon arrival, she meets the children, Flora (Danielle Ryan ’06) and Miles (Alysoun Kegel ’04), and finds them to be perfectly angelic. The children’s sweetness, however, seems almost too good to be true. The governess also finds the house to be eerily isolated; she only has the companionship of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megan Romayne Stern ’06).
When the governess begins to see the ghost-figure of Peter Quint, Stern’s heart-rending line: “Dear God, is there no end to his dreadful ways?!” pierces the listener to the core. Quint, as it turns out (Jonathan Boschetto ’04) was a former valet at Bly Manor who, in his master’s absence, became “free with everyone,” according to Mrs. Grose. There is even an insinuation that he may have corrupted the children, as “he liked them pretty — he liked them morning and night.” While alive, Quint was involved with a lady, Miss Jessel (Charlotte Dobbs ’05), who was far above his rank. Both died under mysterious circumstances.
When the governess spies the ghost of Miss Jessel staring intently and seductively at Flora by the lake, the governess realizes that both Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, having corrupted the children in life, have now returned in death to claim the children’s souls. The governess vows to protect the children, whom she has come to love as her own.
If the rest of the opera, however, is only detailed a simple struggle between good and evil, we could all leave after the first act. We know this story. What makes the second act so captivating, however, is that the governess begins to doubt herself and the existence of the ghosts. Are they projections of her imagination? Is she slowly going mad as well? Owen beautifully portrays the governess as she desperately tries to center herself against this increasingly sinister and sexual mansion-world.
Stern also performs her role with a delicious complexity — you can see her simultaneously trying to swallow a terrible secret, putting on a kind, motherly face and layering her performance with subtle tones of homosexuality. Ryan plays Flora with an irresistible effervescence. She gives Flora an ironic mixture of girlish purity and womanly corruption that is particularly effective and disturbing. Kegel perfectly embodies Miles as a young, earnest boy on the brink of manhood. The audience quickly forgives and forgets the gender crossover with Kegel’s boyish soprano, sans vibrato.
I would have liked Boschetto to have exuded more of an active, menacing energy in Quint. I was more afraid of his character when witnessing Owen’s horror and fear in Quint’s absence than when he was actually onstage. Owen’s wonderfully expressive face and voice truly instill the listener-viewer with the impending sense of doom and terror. Her strong, clear soprano is gorgeous even to the opera novice’s ear. Dobbs plays Miss Jessel with a tantalizing mixture of evil and allure. Even when she is not singing, the audience can sense her electric presence and power. Her character truly complicates the dynamic of good versus bad — she is so beguiling, we are not sure which side we really want to take.
The direction by Darien Lamen ’04 is effective in that it does not detract from the power of the music. Lamen knows a good thing when he sees it, and does not try to complicate the work with unnecessary movement. My only caveat was that at times the blocking was slightly cliched — as in the final scene, where Quint and the governess duel over Miles, impressing upon him and looking over his shoulder like a good angel-bad angel tableau. Miles finally throws himself into the governess’s arms rather melodramatically, to indicate that he has chosen the “good angel” side — not a surprise.
If the staging of the “final showdown” seems rather inevitable, the ending of the piece itself is nicely complicated. As the governess realizes that Miles’ inert form she holds in her arms is, in fact, dead, she lapses into a haunting theme that Miles sang at the beginning of the opera (when he was first being seduced by evil). Owen’s eyes frantically search the heavens — for respite? in fear? — and then slowly relax and dim. The audience is left to guess whether she has taken a step toward evil herself, or if she has finally secured a sort of defeated peace.
Perry So ’04 exerts a masterful, precise control over his chamber orchestra. Although space limitations require the orchestra and the stage to be placed side-by-side, the placement has the serendipitous effect of allowing the audience to witness the direct and symbiotic relationship between orchestra and voice. So conducts with an energy that is refreshing to watch. With the acoustics of the Off-Broadway space, at times the singers’ voices were slightly drowned out by the orchestra, but it did not significantly detract from the overall message and power of the music.
Even if you aren’t used to modern music, the beauty of Britten’s score is that the discord becomes natural, pleasing to the ear, almost addictively seductive over time, echoing the characters’ relationships to evil throughout the opera. If you are the sort of person who tends to dismiss opera as a bunch of fat people belting out ear-piercing melodies, challenge yourself to see this psycho-sexual, chilling tale of a work.
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