Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW at Union Avenue Opera

Gothic Horror in Union Avenue Opera’s “The Turn of the Screw”

By: Jul. 10, 2023
Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW at Union Avenue Opera
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In opera, horrific events occur on the regular, in expansive variety; a mere list of what happens to leading sopranos would suffice. But the art form rarely interfaces with the genre of horror fiction. Opening night of the 2023 season at Union Avenue Opera (July 7) gave us Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) “The Turn of the Screw,” a deft psychological exploration of the dimensions of horror and the human mind. UAO’s successful staging of the work appropriately raised more questions than it answered, about danger, fear, the limits of human perception, and a host of other commonplaces in horror. Though two ghosts rule the roost, most of the danger remains unseen by the audience.

Britten has become a rarer treat in Saint Louis. In the 1980s, Britten’s operas were the most performed here; Opera Theatre Saint Louis staged no fewer than ten of them in their first eighteen seasons, including “The Turn of the Screw.” By the 2010s, we enjoyed just two, a centennial “Peter Grimes” at the SLSO which traveled to Carnegie Hall, and the quirky “Albert Herring” at Union Avenue six years ago. “The Turn of the Screw” (1954) runs shorter and executes more economically than either of these, streamlined from Henry James’ 1898 novella, one of the most analyzed texts in the English language. The opera’s musical form, a theme and sixteen variations stretching through a prologue and sixteen short scenes, unifies the drama organically and drives home a motivic insistence on the building psychic horror, like walls closing in on the listener.

The opera’s rendering of the story by Myfanwy Piper’s libretto is brief to tell. An unnamed Governess is summoned by a London-dwelling aristocrat to his country estate, Bly, to caretake his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles; he specifies a peculiar condition, that the Governess may not contact him, even in writing. Her only adult companion is the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, a bit of a space cadet. Two ghosts of erstwhile servants at Bly, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, prevail upon the children, scaring the Governess. She eventually writes the uncle, but Miles intercepts the letter. More spooky stuff happens.

A fundamental interpretative dispute about the novella structures the staging of Britten’s opera, too. The “apparitionist” reading deems the ghosts real, really interacting with Flora and Miles. The “non-apparitionist” reading takes the ghosts as imaginary and assigns more agency to their Governess’s mind; these dilapidated, thinly populated mansions are enough to drive a gal mad, Gothically. Director Nancy Bell’s staging employed two crucial props that seemed to situate the ghosts firmly in the Governess’ reality. Peter Quint passes a crow to Miles, and Miss Jessel leaves a baby doll with Flora. Unless we are to believe that the children cradle imaginary objects, the spirit world and the physical world therefore seem joined.

The apparitionist reading need not preclude the virtues of the other reading—what actually happened to these kids prior to the opera may still be left up to the minds of the Governess, and the audience. The story works best if the stranger danger is real. Though the specter of child abuse remains omnipresent, Britten’s opera also calls upon that brand of cultural pedophobia common in Anglo-American texts of the third quarter of the 20C, especially in the horror genre. Flora and Miles conduct themselves creepily enough to unnerve the Governess, even had the ghosts never appeared. It’s a short half-decade from this opera to “Village of the Damned” (1960).

Operatically, if you’re going to set to music a text this screwy [if you will], the composer might as well try something atypical with vocal fach, too. When Miles is cast as a soprano rather than a child treble, no fewer than five sopranos populate the show, punctuated by a lone male voice, also high, one tenor. In this tight cast, Meroë Khalia Adeeb stood out as the Governess. Of late she’s performed iconic full lyric roles such as Mimi in “La Bohème” and Violetta in “La Traviata,” and her instrument really shone in occasional forays above the staff. Adeeb proved skilled at incrementally matching her vocalism to her character’s growing anxiety, her Governess pivoting from a commitment to stipulated inaction in the fourth scene, to already believing the children lost by the end of the first act, to a firmer resolve to write the letter in the eleventh scene. Her voice blossomed in the singiest moment in the score as she formulated the Governess’ unspecific, unhelpful, undelivered missive to the uncle, this scene echoing Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” when Elsa breaks down and asks Lohengrin’s name—the one act she has been expressly forbidden. Adeeb delivered the mournful Latin coda with warmth and genuine sorrow, as the audience is repeatedly invited to identify with her character, the observer.

Christine Brewer remains a Saint Louis institution, her timbre still beautiful and stage presence authoritative. Her larger soprano voice contrasted Adeeb and its force lent an English stiff-upper-lip when required, positioned better than the Governess to put the children in their places, her clarion diction underlining Mrs Grose as the prosaic character less attuned to the paranormal. Alexandra Martinez-Turano ably produced a distinct sound in this festival of sopranos, with ample deployment of chest voice as the ghost Miss Jessel, the former governess, limply holding a limp baby doll, another lost child. Among the creepiest moments in a succession thereof, Miss Jessel caressed the outline of the Governess, inches from her body as she slept at a desk. Her sway over the girl, Flora, was clear, as she crawled, limped, and shuffled on and off stage, embodying her paranormal character reminiscent of La Llorona. As Flora and Miles, Cecelia Hickey and Sophie Yilmaz appropriately “whitened” their voices, and drew the contrast between the two children. Hickey presented more insouciant attitude, and Yilmaz more melancholy, and a fascination with death. Yilmaz’ acting was particularly effective in the thirteenth scene, as Quint persuaded Miles to steal the letter.

As Peter Quint, and in a prologue that clues the audience in to the antecedent scenario, James Stevens nearly stole the show. A rarity, to hear a character tenor sound so beautiful. He soared in Britten’s vocal writing for Quint, chock full of malice-signifying melisma, seeming perfectly out of place relative to the other characters, as if lifted from Renaissance polyphony. Too, his gestural intensity hit the mark, exactly the correct measure of over the top; mysterious then, why the women and children and even the other ghost haven’t already fled Bly. His declamation of “do not betray our secrets” to Miles sent a chill through the auditorium; indeed, what has happened to this child?

This opera company consistently achieves artistic wonders with modest resources, and “The Turn of the Screw” upheld this brand. Laura Skroska’s set design and Patrick Huber’s lighting design suggested with spare means a Gothic country estate, a semicircular staircase embracing a dark room with a piano, a desk, a bed, with a window at the top and vegetation at the perimeter, breathing furtively in the venue’s air conditioning. Nancy Bell’s stage direction generally made sense, and the inclusion of the deceased crow and baby doll effectively integrated the material and spirit worlds. General director and conductor Scott Schoonover’s chamber orchestra sounded more secure than during last year’s COVID-ravaged season, with gorgeous contributions especially from principal cellist Ken Kulosa, principal flautist Ann Dolan, and principal clarinetist Jeanine York-Garesché. Phil Touchette’s supertitles were most helpful; Britten’s reputation for pairing clear English language with music notwithstanding, seeing exact text when people are singing always aids comprehension.

Union Avenue Opera always delivers, and this opening night fostered anticipation of greater gelling among this sextet of singers, and anticipation of the other two works this season, Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” and Stephen Flaherty’s “Ragtime.” “The Turn of the Screw” continues at Union Avenue Opera July 14 and 15; “Don Pasquale” premieres July 28 and “Ragtime” on August 18.

Photo by Dan Donovan


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