Dallas Opera presents a hauntingly beautiful production of Britten’s “Turn of the Screw”

Sat Mar 18, 2017 at 12:56 pm
By J. Robin Coffelt

Alexandra LoBianco as Miss Jessel and Emma Bell as the Governess in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” at Dallas Opera. Photo: Karen Almond.

Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera The Turn of the Screw is undergoing a recent renaissance, with several new productions mounted in the past decade. Perhaps best known among these is the 2006 Glyndebourne Festival Opera staging, which the Dallas Opera revived in its hauntingly beautiful performance that opened Friday night.

The opera begins with a prologue that serves as a framing device for the evening. In the frame, a man, (tenor William Burden, who sings Peter Quint) finds an old manuscript, written by the Governess (soprano Emma Bell) decades earlier.

In the manuscript, she relates the story of the opera, when she was a young, inexperienced governess who has been hired to take care of a wealthy man’s orphaned niece and nephew. He mandates that she must not contact him for any reason, and that they will be living at Bly, his country house, with only the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (soprano Dolora Zajick), for adult company. Throughout, the Governess, isolated from the outside world and living only with Mrs. Grose and two small children, is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and Miss Jessel’s lover Peter Quint, or descends into madness, imagining the spirits.

The Turn of the Screw includes only six singers, who divide into three pairs: the adults, the Governess and Mrs. Gross, the children, Miles (boy soprano Oliver Nathanielsz) and Flora (soprano Ashley Emerson) and the ghosts, Miss Jessel (Alexandra LoBianco) and Peter Quint. This means that of the six voices, five are sopranos, and one is a tenor. It’s an unusual, top-heavy balance. Friday night, the six singers mostly overcame that inherent challenge.

Emma Bell’s Governess was just right throughout: Bell has a big, Wagnerian voice, but a purity of tone that not only serves the music but also her characterization well. The Governess should, at the beginning of the opera, be nearly as innocent as her young charges, and Bell conveys this naïveté convincingly. 

More problematic was Dolora Zajick’s Mrs. Grose. While Zajick’s voice is huge, gorgeous, and more than an ample match for Bell’s, her diction was not perfectly crisp, making supertitles a boon, and her vibrato was wide enough to create issues with pitch in the most dissonant chords.

One tricky aspect of this opera is that two of the six roles are children. Miles must be cast as a boy soprano, and Oliver Nathanielsz was largely outstanding in the challenging role. His voice is ethereal, pure, and chill-inducing in the upper register, although more precise enunciation of consonants would be welcome. His acting is equally fine; it’s not easy to die convincingly onstage, and yet, when the Governess and Quint fight over poor little Miles, sending him to his death, Nathanielsz does just that.

Flora, on the other hand, is generally sung by a small woman, because it is a role too complex for nearly all children. Ashley Emerson, with her petite stature and excellent acting skills, was utterly believable as a young child, even in her several playtime scenes. But her voice, though unaffected, pure, and bright, was all grown up, perfect for this pivotal role.

Alexandra LoBianco’s ghost of Miss Jessel was appropriately creepy, lurking weightily about and making her claims on the children clear. LoBianco’s slightly dark soprano is an ideal choice for this role, providing timbral contrast with Bell’s unaffected tone. Her acting, too, is spot on, as she sprawls heavily on the vanity table, silently rejecting the claims of the Governess who sings “this is MY desk” and then “these are MY children.”

William Burden’s ominous ghost of Peter Quint, the only adult male role in the cast, is an ideal balance of the ominous and the authoritative. He is far more terrifying than Miss Jessel, because he radiates self-confidence and spectral panache. Quint evidently corrupted Miles in some unspecified way, perhaps sexual, perhaps not, while he was alive, and after his death, his ghost continues to call Miles to him. The menace in his character is amply reflected by the overt threat—but also the longing—in Burden’s voice and characterization.

The opera, in a prologue and sixteen scenes evenly divided between two acts, is one of Britten’s experiments in serial composition, but it is not entirely12-tone. As with other of Britten’s compositions, The Turn of the Screw mixes tonality and dissonance, as each serves the development of the plot. Musically, the opera is tricky for instrumentalists as well as for singers, and for the most part the orchestra delivered. The 13-member chamber ensemble includes only five string players, as well as a handful of winds and brass, harp, piano, and percussion. In the opening prologue, Kirk Severtson’s piano introduction was just right, while Ami Campbell on violin and Mitch Maxwell on cello each had gorgeous, lyrical playing in their solos. Conductor Nicole Paiement pushed tempi a bit throughout, but kept precise balance between the orchestra and solo instrumental lines.

A prevailing theme of the opera is confinement. This is one of the many ironies of the opera, since it is set mostly in a large home in the country. Paul Brown’s modernist sets seem to inspire both openness and claustrophobia, as a wall of windows both provides a view of the out-of-doors and serves as a barrier. This opera is tricky to stage because of 17 different scenes, each of which requires at least a minor set change. Brown achieves these quick changes with a rotating stage featuring two concentric circles. The outer circle moves props and singers on and off the stage, while the inner circle moves singers and props within the stage. Other large props, such as the window wall and a large tree branch, are raised and lowered from above. All of this complexity seemed to come off without a hitch Friday evening.

This production chooses to place the opera in the 1950s–the time of its composition–so furnishings and costumes, also by Paul Brown, reflect that time. The Governess’ outfits run to midi skirts and blouses in muted shades of cream and green, and upholstered furnishings use a coordinating color scheme. The children’s outfits are in similarly subdued colors. Miss Jessel, however, is all in black, with her dark, drowned-looking hair spilling around her face, and Peter Quint, though hatless and “not a gentleman,” is nonetheless in a smart suit.

The opera, and the 1898 Henry James novella that inspired it, turn on its ambiguity. The best productions leave audiences unsure whether the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are real, or whether they are creations of the Governess’ disordered mind. They leave us asking questions about how Miss Jessel died, why Miles dies, and also about the Governess’ level of culpability. Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper seem to encourage this uncertainty, and this excellent Dallas Opera production leaves it a satisfyingly open question.

The Turn of the Screw runs through March 25. dallasopera.org

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