Like the story that inspired it, Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”
holds you in its grip from beginning to end. So does the Music Center Opera’s
brilliant production of the work, which had the first of four performances at
the Music Center on Saturday night. Miss it at your peril. The power of the Henry James story, as every schoolboy knows, lies in its
ambiguity. We are left to guess which is real, the ghosts or the Governess who
thinks she sees them. Putting the story on stage, as play or opera, forces a
producer to choose a single alternative, and this Britten and his librettist
Myfanwy {cq} Piper have done in this masterful small opera of 1954. The ghosts
are real; they come on stage and sing. The Governess, too, is real, because
she too sings. And how, she sings! Yet, one beauty of this production, devised by Jonathan Miller for the English
National Opera in 1979, is its success in preserving ambiguities. Patrick
Robertson’s sets, with projections both on scrims and a back wall, so fill the
stage with with a jumble of images that characters seem to float in and out of
reality. The effect is both disturbing and stunning; you will look far before
you discover better justice done to this greatest of all psychological
thrillers, in any medium. The performances are, in a word, phenomenal. No milder word will do for the
overwhelming Governess of Helen Donath, previously known here only from
recordings. She has worked a magisterial voice and a powerful stage presence
into a consistent portrait. It might be described as lyric frazzlement, or it
might better reside beyond rational description. No less extraordinary is the
work of 12-year-old Nik{cq}Nackley as the haunted Miles: again, a marvelously
consistent performance at once angelic and sinister, and nicely sung
besides. Old friends round out the cast: Marvellee Cariaga as a strong yet troubled Mrs.
Grose, Jonathan Mack and Angelique Burzynski as a pair of reptilian ghosts,
Eileen Hulse as the other child (although clearly several times the age of
eight years specified in the script). The orchestra of a mere 13 players,
under Roderick Brydon’s alert, flexible direction, reproduces the wonders of
Britten’s iridescent scoring. And so a far-from-capacity crowd on opening night found itself, possibly with
some surprise, cheering to the rafters a 20th-century chamber opera on a
serious topic. “The Turn of the Screw” deserved no less. It has taken this
whole season for our opera company to come up with one production for which
the highest praise might pass as understatement. This time it happened.

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