An Eerie Rarity, The Turn of the Screw Offers No Escape

19/10/2018

Britten, The Turn of the Screw: Soloists of Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony / Constantin Trinks (conductor), Seattle, Washington, 13.11.2018. (ZC)

Seattle Opera’s The Turn of the Screw
(c) Philip Newton

Britten – The Turn of the Screw

Cast:

Governess – Elizabeth Caballero
Peter Quint/Narrator – Ben Bliss
Mrs. Grose – Maria Zifchak
Miss Jessel – Marcy Stonikas
Miles – Rafi Bellamy Plaice
Flora – Soraya Mafi

Production:

Director – Peter Kazaras
Set Designer – Robert Dahlstrom
Costume Designer – Deborah Trout
Lighting Designer – Connie Yun
Projection Designer – Adam Larsen

What should Seattle audiences make of an opera that explores sexual improprieties, crushing guilt, innocence — not to mention, theme and variation of operatic form? These were the questions on my mind as a new production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw opened last Saturday evening.Britten is probably the most successful English-language opera composer the world has known, and yet his operas — even the famous ones — are performed infrequently. The last time Seattle Opera mounted The Turn of the Screw was 1994. Even for what is one of Britten’s most unnerving works, 24 years is too long an interval. And perhaps, given the darkness in the news these days—ongoing clergy sex abuse, animus-fueled populism, murdered journalists, war, and of course our own diminishing sense of self—the opera returned to Seattle at a propitious moment. The production unnerved and unsettled, in a good way.

A lonely piano begins the tale, followed by ominous words from a narrator, ‘It is a curious story, written in faded ink’. From there, the story moves to the relationship between the Governess of Bly House and the two young children under her watch, Miles and Flora.

If only the story were so simple. The Governess learns that Miles has been expelled from his school. And when she glimpses a mysterious figure in Bly House, the Governess learns from Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, that spirits may reside within its walls. Peter Quint, the spirit she saw, was a former valet who might have abused young Miles. A second spectre, that of a former governess and associate of Quint’s, may have eyes for Flora.

The Governess vows to protect the children at all costs, yet questions abound throughout the story. Are Miles and Flora really well mannered, good children? What happened to them? Are the ghosts that appear to haunt them real?  And ultimately, is the Governess to blame for the tale’s tragic end?  Amid these questions, ambiguities, and improprieties, the audience finds that, much like our own world, little in The Turn of the Screw is what it seems. Subjectivism plays an outsized role in whether something is truly good or truly evil. These alternative facts and our individual conclusions together make Britten’s opus a terrifying experience.

The cast, set design, and direction work together effectively to convey the opera’s many moods, with heavy use of projected images. Mostly a plain backdrop for the projections, the set has the ability to shift three-dimensionally, morphing into the stairs, balconies or hallways of Bly House depending on the scene. The images cast  are always changing, at times spectral qualities. Together these projections and the set’s frequent alterations intensify the suspicion that something isn’t quite right with the characters.

Of the six people, the focus is primarily on the Governess, Miles, and ghost of Peter Quint. Ben Bliss projects a gently menacing and persistent Quint, who transmits terror through piercing and knowing gazes as much as his ephemeral singing. Miles is portrayed by Seattle Opera newcomer Rafi Bellamy Plaice, who finely balances innocence and subversive darkness. For much of the opera, his tenderly sung reading convinces us Miles is a victim. But as the second act progresses, Plaice gradually increases the intensity, especially as Quint’s ghost engages more forcefully with him.

In contrast, Elizabeth Cabellero is tightly wound as the Governess; hints of sweetness in her voice are quickly eclipsed by panic. Unlike Quint and Miles, whose more ambiguous qualities are revealed over time, from the start Cabellero ensures that something isn’t quite right with the well-meaning Governess. The other three characters — the spirit-haunting Flora, Mrs. Grose, and Miss Jessel — are masterfully done by Soraya Mafi, Maria Zifchak, and Marcy Stonikas, respectively, in ways that serve as knowing echoes of the main trio. Stonikas’s Miss Jessel adds disturbing bite to the ghostly duo. Mafi’s Flora is more overtly disturbed. And Zifchak’s Mrs. Grose is relaxed and more knowing.

One other ‘character’ deserves mention. Britten’s orchestra is a small but mighty 13 players. His evocative motifs and manipulation of a primary theme, which he takes through 12 variations, are a backbone for the overall tone. The composer uses every instrument of the ensemble, from bass to celesta, to create a haunting musical atmosphere.

The Turn of the Screw may not suit all tastes. Unlike Il trovatore and Carmen, which will be performed later this season, it doesn’t offer audiences the usual escape. If anything, Seattle’s current production focuses on the troubles that engulf the world and questions our reality — in an intimate, inescapably troubling setting. There is no escape. But for the adventurous, this concise, perfectly crafted example of Britten’s colorful orchestral writing make the opera a must-see.

Zach Carstensen  

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