There comes a time in every young boy’s life when he has to bite the bullet and encounter the ghosts of his former household staff. When this happens, it’s often best accompanied by music.
“The Turn of the Screw,” the Opera Theater of Yale College’s Winter Mainstage, captures all this in a rather more somber fashion. Director Benji Goldsmith ’14 and conductor Michael Sansoni MUS ’11 use their paranoid vision to bring to life Benjamin Britten’s operatic take on the classic Henry James story. Their show leaves your ears ringing, your mind reeling, and your sense of pathos begging for more.
The show starts off innocently enough when a hapless governess (Emily Misch ’11) is sent to care for two country-dwelling orphans. Flora (Maeve Ricaurte ’13) and Miles (Marcelle Friedman ’11) are cute, their housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Lora Chow ’11) is friendly in a gormless, domestic way. But when figures start appearing out of nowhere and the children develop an unhealthy fascination with night-time, the country tranquility the governess sought begins to seem like a bad practical joke. Add in a 13-piece orchestra and you have a darkly fascinating atmosphere par excellence.
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Amidst the heavy, grand tones of the score, the suspense builds note by note. It is the governess who first encounters both ghosts; once she confers with Mrs. Grose, she is only more perturbed. The first, a “handsome” male but “a horror” nonetheless is apparently Peter Quint (Steven Feis ’11). He “was free with … little Master Miles” and violently dominated the rest of the household, the housekeeper breathlessly reveals. Accompanying him is none other than his former lover and the children’s last governess: Miss Jessel (Stephanie Weinraub ’12). The duo is devious; the governess is nervous; the children are vulnerable. Who’re you going to call?
An eye for detail lends the production a level of sophistication many student shows unfortunately lack. The costumes are perfection; the actors look the part. Even the governess’ train journey is gripping. Such slickness and precision lay the foundation for a jarring and visceral experience.
The acting is generally fantastic. Misch, in scenes like her duet with former governess and current mischievous spirit Weinraub, is expressive, endearing and engaging. Her voice complements her acting ability to make her a true star. Feis and Chow are phenomenal singers as well, the former’s tantalizing appeals to Miles sending shivers down your spine and the latter’s light-hearted comments delicately rolling off her tongue. Equally impressive are the children, but for different reasons. Ricaurte’s portrayal of a young girl caught up in drama beyond her understanding was excellent; I haven’t seen such great facial expressions since Blair Waldorf went from tearful to composed in ten seconds, literally. Her “brother,” Friedman, is a believable nervous lad and, more than that, she’s a singer who can enthrall an audience. The eerie “Malo” number, a symbol of Quint’s corruption of Miles, is haunting in all the right ways.
But Weinraub stole the show. With acoustics that soared, sunk and did everything else you could ask from them, and an aura so intense I moved down a seat when she walked up the aisle, she was incredible. That we see so little of her is a pity. That we encounter her at all is a sign there may be a four leaf clover under all that snow.
Life, though, as the opera tells us, has its tragic imperfections. So do plays. Although I enjoyed listening to Feis, Chow and Friedman, they share a stiffness that holds them back. Indeed, at some points, it seemed they lacked confidence onstage. Misch also let me down with her constant need to make eye contact with the conductor. It’s simply a matter of loosening up – perfectionism could have been sacrificed for a more natural feel.
Opera might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Granted, it isn’t mine. But “The Turn of the Screw” is far from the obnoxious rendition of “Carmen” your parents forced you to sit through. It’s relevant, it’s exciting and it’s effective. Take a friend and imbibe some culture — just be prepared for a sleepless night.
Correction: February 4, 2011
An earlier version of this article “’Turn’ screws with your mind, chills your spine” misspelled the surname of Emily Misch ’11, referring to her as ‘Emily Mirsch’. It also misstated the class year of Stephanie Weinraub ’12 and misspelled the last name of Steven Feis ’11.