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Turn of the Screw Gets a Stunning New Turn at LA Opera

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In an age of shock-value opera stagings, it has become common to stuff the veiled implications of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw into one-dimensional little-shop-of-horrors productions. Both the Los Angeles and Santa Fe Operas followed that course in years past. While conceiving this work so narrowly may be titillating, it forecloses alternative perceptions and downplays thought -- fatal mistakes with Britten, that most mental of operatic composers.

The work's current LA Opera production, borrowed from Glyndebourne and premiered at the Chandler Pavilion on March 12, is a game-changer. It works exceedingly well at revealing latent complexities of character motivation while leaving the ultimate responsibility for their evaluation to the viewer. Its musical realization is also first rate, allowing the work to shine as a towering masterpiece.

Henry James' 1898 novella of the same name, on which the opera is based, concerns an overwrought governess who protects her young charges from the carnal influence of two lingering ghosts. It was a well-made story with a puzzle of red herrings in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle, but also a thriller with the subliminal sexuality of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which had been published just the year before. Britten's version, the last of his three great chamber operas, and composed a half century later, maintains the original novella's ironically detached style and unsettling tone.

The Turn of the Screw's central theme is the loss of innocence. Productions of it must come to grips with two dynamics. The first is how to treat the passage of time and experience in the opera's narrative. The second is how to incorporate the changing mores from a prim Victorian England to an empire amid decline and reappraisal after the Second World War and beyond.

A full appreciation of the work's insight into alternate aspects of human nature also depends on one's willingness to change viewpoints during the course of the opera. (One precedent can be cited as a clue: the shifting allegiances in Magic Flute after Tamino is sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the "evil" clutches of Sarastro.)

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In the manner of Alfred Hitchcock's films, Glyndebourne production director Jonathan Kent and LA Opera stage director Francesca Gilpin set the initial action in the bland daily routine of an English country estate. The effect of the false normalcy is to twist the building tensions of subsequent abnormalities all the more tautly.

Paul Brown's costumes place the action at mid-twentieth century, about the time of the opera's premiere in 1954. His clean and crisp scenery is gestural, anchored with a central pane of a dozen glass windows mounted on a large pivot that migrates from drawing room windows (above) to the surface of the nearby lake (below), and eventually to a kind of two way mirror that both separates and reflects alternate realities (second from bottom). A massive dead tree branch hung horizontally above it is a key visual leitmotif for sinister forces outside.

Two circular turntables on the stage floor allow for rapid scene changes (sixteen in all) moving the action in and out of doors. Household scenes -- a child's train set, a brother and sister horseback riding, or piano practice -- vie in split-second timing with the appearance of uninvited guests, or a nearby lake with a floating body. Mark Henderson's lighting captures the changing moods, from bright innocence to inky terror.

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Britten's musical structure is as immaculately outfitted and precisely lethal as the collection of blades in a Swiss Army knife. A labyrinth-like principal theme incorporates all twelve tones of the scale, a nod to the composer Arnold Schoenberg's angst-ridden atonality. This theme will be varied and applied to each character's actions through the 16 scenes. Intervals of the fourth note on the scale rise while intervals of the fifth fall, as fragments of a melismatic figuration sinew throughout. After an introduction for tenor and piano, the measured pacing of each of the first act's eight scenes notch up in key signature like twists in a corkscrew. The second act's eight scenes mirror the first in character interactions, and take the same spider walk down the keys that they had earlier climbed up.

Britten's orchestrations conjure a mesmerizing psychology in sound, with a large toolbox of instrumental combinations performed by just thirteen virtuoso musicians. Spine-tingling effects pour out of the orchestra pit: steamy strings, creepy celesta, slippery harp, fluttery piccolo, tender soprano and alto flutes, seductive bass and treble clarinets, and a battery of heart-palpitating percussion instruments. (For a single snapshot of these black magic orchestrations, listen to the opening measures of Act II.)

Conductor James Conlon and his thirteen charges brought off the opening night performance in stunning form, all the more impressive as each musician soloed on his or her respective instrument or family of instruments in various registers. Britten would have been as proud of this band as of the virtuosos he had handpicked for the opera's premiere. It was apparent that Conlon understands this score from broad architecture to intimate detail.

Vocal contributions and dramatic action on stage were no less impressive. Soprano Patricia Racette, taking on this role for the first time, was the emphatically sung Governess, who morphs from tentative new member of the household to anxiety-driven maternal proxy. Her uneasy embodiment of traditional family values mixes with a psychological insecurity that could undermine the Governess's fitness for duty.

Tenor William Burden's restrained and mellifluous performance as a very life-like Peter Quint (also as narrator in the Prologue) was, if not quite sympathetic, not entirely sinister as the "older man" who entices the boy Miles, in a manner not dissimilar to Schubert's initially seductive but later insistent Erlkönig. Burden's final gasps at his denunciation were haunting and pathetic. Tenor Peter Pears, Britten's lifetime partner and the original Quint, would seem to be Burden's vocal role model but this spectral burden proved no barrier to his smooth-voiced successor.

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The role of Miles, performed by boy treble Michael Kepler Meo (above), is key to the opera, and the young singer was very much up to its demands. The inner life of Miles is a focus from the beginning when we learn he has been expelled from school. Meo's handling of Miles' later maturation and increasing self-assertion was stylish and well modulated. His lament of "Malo" was affecting and his final shout of "Peter Quint, you devil!" arresting as tortured outcry.

Irish Mezzo Ann Murray conveyed the loyal but timid Mrs. Grose with warmth and grace and the idiomatic authority of this beloved veteran of the British stage. Murray has us wondering why Mrs. Grose is so timid, and if she knows more than she's telling. Soprano Ashley Emerson's Flora, short of stature and in bouncing naughty pigtails, convinced all she was a girl and not a young adult singer of experienced accomplishment. Rich-voiced soprano Tamara Wilson induced sympathy and revulsion as the deathly, anguished ghost of Miss Jessel. The problematic Flora-Jessel relationship is resolved by Flora's prompt departure with Mrs. Grose as the tensions mount.

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As a defender of conventional mores, the Governess resists what she sees as inappropriate human desires, even in her own repressed feelings for the guardian. It is not clear who, if any, have seen the ghosts other than the Governess, and doubts arise as to her mental composure. In the ensuing struggle with Quint, we also wonder whether the Governess is protecting Miles' innocence or preventing his natural development, even if proves to be out of the norm.

Has her job of protection migrated into a clinging possessiveness? Britten telegraphs some dramatic hints when in the last scene he has her sing the same unsettling melismatic line that Quint has used all along, and after the boy's death intoning his "Malo" lament.

The tragic operatic journey ends with further speculation. The simultaneous disappearance of Quint and the collapse of Miles when the boy "outs" his pursuer by naming him suggests the Quint character was as much the doppelganger of Miles' personality (below) as he was the ghost of the Governess (above). Quint may all along have been the latent adult that Miles is anticipating within himself. ("I am all things strange and bold.")

Had the confrontation with his Governess come a few years later, one wonders if Miles might have defied her and embraced his inner Quint.

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Additional Considerations

Speculation focuses on the sensitive subject of how much autobiography was in Benjamin Britten's depiction of Miles and Quint. The composer was molested as a youth, and like Miles was a child prodigy on the piano. He was also reportedly obsessed with David Hemmings, the boy who premiered the role of Miles.

How one perceives The Turn of the Screw as social commentary depends on one's point of view and tolerance for deviation from social norms. Pedophilia is universally scorned. However, perspectives on adult same-sex relationships have changed over time and locale. The novella's first readers inhabited a pre-Freudian England. Britten's opera premiered a half-century later in a post-Freudian one. Today we take in both works with sensibilities shaped not only by Freud, but also by gay liberation, the repeal of DADT, and in some states the emergence of equal marriage rights for same sex couples.

As civilizations advance, people of intelligence and empathy accommodate to changes in social mores. In Bram Stoker's London of 1897, a vampire would have been treated with a stake through his heart and a cross on yours. In the Los Angeles of the not too distant future, perhaps even vampires may be accepted as True Blood lovers. Or are they already?

Performances March 25 (7:30 pm), March 27 (2 pm), March 30 (7:30 pm). See LA Opera.

All photos courtesy of LA Opera, and, except as indicated, by Robert Millard. From top: 1) Michael Kepler Meo as Miles, William Burden (at back) as Peter Quint, 2) Ashley Emerson as Flora, Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose, Meo, 3) Emerson, Patricia Racette as the Governess, photo by Mike Hoban, 4) Meo, Racette, 5) Burden, Racette, 6) Burden, Meo, Racette.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net