Pacific Opera Project’s choice of The Turn of the Screw to launch its 2014 season was a bold one, given the production’s ponderous themes. The Benjamin Britten opera lives on a far different and dismal planet than other POP offerings (Cosi Fan Tutte, La Boheme, the Mikado, and others).
The mature choice paid off with vibrant voices and subtle acting that transported the gala opening on January 11. Staged in downtown Los Angeles’ intimate 140-seat Rosenthal Theater, the production gained an immediacy not possible on larger stages.
The 13-member chamber orchestra led by Stephen Karr stretched across a recessed space above the production. Dimly lit and seen through a light screen, Karr’s conducting became part and parcel of the experience, casting viewers as near participants in the ghost story - based on the Henry James novella of the same name. The music was superbly played, and with the orchestra's placement, it never overwhelmed the voices.
Plotting the ghost story
Set in the English country Bly House, the story begins as a governess arrives to take charge of two children, Flora and Miles. The Governess – the only of seven characters who lacks a name – feels an unnerving connection with the boy Miles. Both children, in fact, grow increasingly disturbed while under her care, more so the tragic Miles.
The Governess begins to see ghosts of former servants Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, implies were pederasts while alive. Nothing ends well, no surprise. Miles dies, perhaps at the hand of Quint, after the Governess grows increasingly unbalanced.
While many point to the major theme of Screw to be “loss of innocence,” the real elephant in the room is mental illness. Is the story happening in the Governess’ own mind? Did she herself abuse the children? And who has the audacity to create an opera – in the mid 1950s - at least partly based on sexual abuse? Benjamin Britten.
Henry James’ dealt both personally and extensively with his sister Alice’s mental illness, which some believe informs Screw. At least one production aggressively augmented that link: the London-based Opera Up Close cast the Governess as a patient in a psychiatric hospital, in a 2011 production that included video projections.
The opera, although considered one of Britten’s most popular and produced works, can be a hard sell. Three opera fans, in fact, refused my invitation to attend the production, solely based on subject matter and having seen past productions. In truth, they forfeited an incredible night of both singing and acting – larger opera companies don’t always nail that pairing.
Singers easily navigate Britten's complexity
Rebecca Sjöwall gave an apt, bipolar performance as the Governess, striking all the right mad notes. She was a joy to watch – statuesque, a near imposing figure that yet dissolved into sloughs of hysteria. The calibrated acting that subtly and convincingly played over her face perfectly matched a clarion voice, that in the intimate space, was the next best thing to throwing a living room salon.
From the Governess’ initial cheery smile, fittingly fastened a notch too tightly, to her mask of dread as the story descends into darker worlds, Sjöwall inhabited the character completely. Her voice easily mastered all the tonal complexity and dissonance Britten threw at it.
As the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Wallace added gravitas both in acting and voice, that when joined with Sjöwall, doubled the intensity.
Clay Hilley rendered both Prologue and Peter Quint expertly, his voice easily finessing Britten’s incessant twelve-note theme. As the female ghost Miss Jessel, Marina Harris delivered a potent character and voice, matching Hilley’s chilly demeanor. They were a spooky, dead-eyed pair - expertly backlit.
The children, played by Katy Tang (Flora) and Ariel Downs (Miles) struck good contrast as Flora gradually flew into her own brand of hysterics, with Miles growing disturbed and severe. Downs’ rendering of the song “Malo” was especially notable for its haunting delivery. Her slight stature lent the male character sallow undertones, turning him nearly spectral.
Maggie Green’s costumes looked appropriately mid-nineteenth century. The set was perhaps the weakest element in the production – a period doorway, window scrim and fabric-covered flats acting as house walls, tossed with loose fabric for other scenes. I wanted something more minimally elegant.
Pacific Opera Project's future
This was the first gala event thrown by POP, and it came off nicely with an endless variety of appetizers by Starry Kitchen, and sweets by Big Man Bakes, along with wine, champagne, and a pre-show lecture recital captained by Karr.
Overall, the production is a significant pivot for the young, Pacific Opera Project. With its success, Music Director Stephen Karr and Director/Designer Josh Shaw have no doubt cemented their fan base's trust – now willing and just as happy to be plunged into troubled waters, as sent soaring into a night of kicky fun.
Moreover, the bet is, they’ll keep coming back for more.
• Purchase tickets for Pacific Opera Project’s The Turn of the Screw. January 17, 18, 19.
• View video and photos of past Pacific Opera Project productions.