Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Turn of the Screw in Atlanta

(Reflections on THE TURN OF THE SCREW, an opera based on the novella by Henry James.  Music by Benjamin Britten.  Libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Production by Georgia State University Opera Theatre, Carroll Freeman, artistic director and stage director.  Michael Palmer, conductor. Performance April 20, 2013.)
Ben Thomas as "Quint" (GSU Opera's Facebook page)
For the opera The Turn of the Screw, librettist Myfanwy Piper strips 99% of the words from Henry James’s ghostly tale of the same name, but her skeleton of the story leaves Benjamin Britten room for music that propels the story and sustains tension. Carroll Freeman, director of the recent production by Georgia State University Opera Theatre, made choices that kept focus on character and music.

Like the libretto, the set for this production was skeletal, mere platforms and a curtain of chains.  Lights on a scrim provided variety and mood, and, for the chapel scene, the projection of a rose window. Young members of the orchestra might as well have been characters, as we could see their intent concentration on Britten’s score.  The ghosts “Quint” and “Miss Jessel” were portrayed by trios of singers in shrouds and fright wigs.  Their voices emanated from behind us and before us, above and beside us.  They danced together around young Miles and around the Governess, and it was easy to see why the Governess and young Miles might be overwhelmed.  

Miles was played by a tousle-headed soprano in trousers whose bearing and costumes grew more masculine as the opera progressed.  The Governess’s affectionate embraces seemed to become more grasping, both protective and possessive. 

Those of us who have read the story can argue endlessly over whether the ghosts are “real” to young Miles and Flora, or whether those two children are innocent victims of a delusional Governess.  Britten keeps some of the ambiguity, as when the Governess sings that she hopes to see her absent employer one more time.  Immediately, she does see him, only to realize instantly that it’s a stranger who will later be identified as “Quint.” She thinks of the man, she sees the man, and is instantly frightened of him:  Has her imagination supplied the vision?  Britten’s music suggests that possibility when the malignant ghosts sing the refrain to their triumphant duet, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  It’s a tune we first heard when the Governess arrived at Bly.

I am grateful to have been able at last to see this piece live.

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