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The Turn of the Screw

New York City Opera

In Review Turn of the Screw City Opera HDL 513
Buntrock's Turn of the Screw production for NYCO at BAM, with Wenzelberg, Jakubiak, Worsham and Musacchio
© Richard Termine 2013

In the years since Britten's Turn of the Screw was written, we've passed through slasher movies and ever more lurid video games. Doubtless it is no longer possible to make the opera scarier in any overt way. Understandably, Sam Buntrock's production for New York City Opera (seen Feb. 26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) takes a roundabout path. It is set in Thatcher-era Britain, mostly in a suburban rec room. David Farley's designs give us beanbag chairs, a mere three channels on over-the-air television, Star Wars posters for Miles and bad art over the everyday sofa. Initially, the presence of the ghosts is indicated merely by a flickering lightbulb, or by the television picture turning snowy. When we first see Miles drawn to Quint, the child moves to the television, à la the movie Poltergeist, rather than to the apparition. (At the start of Act II, the Governess unplugs the television, as if that might help.) Precisely because this world is pastel-colored, and because a suburban basement by definition is not isolated, some of the necessary chill of the story is recaptured.

The main drawback to the design is that there is no sense of the outdoors for the scenes at the tower and the lake. A set of pendant lamps hangs in an inverted "v" to suggest the former and at floor level to suggest the latter. It could be said that Britten's music depicts the outdoors brilliantly enough, but the scariest image in Myfanwy Piper's libretto, when Miles is drawn out of the relative safety of the house in his nightclothes, passes for little. Buntrock's direction is literal and straightforward; there is no sense of the Governess dreaming up the whole thing out of hysteria or unrequited love for the guardian — only that she is crushed by events that cannot be averted. Certainly the music was in good hands. Conductor Jayce Ogren was sensitive to the theatricality of fermatas and silences. He didn't try to overplay the chamber-music scoring in the large opera house. Indeed, pizzicato chords and cymbal strokes became eerier at the soft dynamics. He brought out beautiful string tone just as the idea of evil was first introduced, and he used spidery violin coloring in the final passacaglia to show the way the formality of the orchestral music tries to hide the high stakes of the final confrontation.

The six members of the cast formed a true ensemble. As a result, Miss Jessel (sung by Jennifer Goode Cooper) and Flora (sung by Lauren Worsham) registered more strongly than they often do. Sara Jakubiak and Benjamin P. Wenzelberg were the Governess and Miles, Dominic Armstrong was Quint, and Sharmay Musacchio was Mrs. Grose. The production and its hard-working cast would have been twice as effective without the redundant English titles that brightly pulsed on and off above the stage like a malfunctioning "Motel" sign. Britten, who labored over each syllable of the text and each note of orchestration so that the words would be intelligible, would have despaired that he lived his entire life in vain. spacer


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