in: Reviews

February 5, 2010

Evocative Setting for Ghostly Turn: BLO at the Castle

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On February 3rd, the Boston Lyric Opera inaugurated its Opera Annex series with a remarkable production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  Based on the book by Henry James, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, it is one of Britten’s most fascinatingly complex scores.  Yet it is also strangely direct and haunting, in large part, because of its sparseness. A chamber opera, it features only six characters (plus a fleetingly used narrator) and 13 instrumentalists. Though Britten had an uncanny ability to make a small ensemble sound huge, it is a skill that he rarely calls upon in this work. Instead, the textures tend to be spare, conjuring the ghostly, lonely images that are so much a part of this Gothic tale.

The performance took place at the Park Plaza Castle in Boston’s South End, and one can hardly imagine a more evocative setting.  The building’s architecture, which lives up to its “castle” designation, arouses a sense of shadowy emptiness. Inside, behind heavy wooden doors, is a cavernous, brick- and iron-wrought space like the ghostly shell of a 19th-century train station. The BLO set-designers worked dark wonders with this space, erecting large, fortress-like tiers of risers from which the sizeable audience could clearly see and hear the gloomy story that unfolds.

For the most part, the stage and sets were appropriately chilling in their simplicity.  A long runway stretched from stage right to a larger, trapezoidal section stage left. On this section were two chairs and a desk that, aside from a handful of small props, were the only objects there. The instrumental ensemble was placed behind the runway, effectively integrating it into the dramatic atmosphere.  Above it, however, was the one troublesome aspect to the set design: a large screen on which, throughout the opera, were projected silent, live-action, vignettes of the characters engaged in mundane off-stage activities. It was a constant source of distraction—not to mention an unnecessary departure from the libretto—and was just too busy for the dim bareness of the place, itself perhaps the most compelling part of staging.

Fortunately, the onstage performances were engrossing enough to overshadow any distractions. Most notable among the cast were soprano Emily Pulley and tenor Vale Rideout. In the central role of the Governess, Pulley was able to brilliantly deliver the depth and breadth of the character’s journey from innocence, through fear, defiance, and desperation, to sad acceptance.  The emotional course of the entire opera moves with that of the Governess, and Pulley’s mastery of the role gave the work the dimension it demands. Rideout, in the role of the ghost Peter Quint, was equally mesmerizing. Though somewhat stilted in his acting, he made up for it vocally with a seductiveness that was both eerie and forceful, allowing him to make the most of the mono-dimensional yet disturbingly enticing character.

The role of Miles, the young boy in the story, is impossibly difficult to capture fully by an age-appropriate performer. It calls for a bizarre mixture of childhood innocence, inappropriate maturity born of possession, occasional boredom, and outright fear. Given the challenges—which would be daunting even to an adult—13-year old Aidan Gent carried the part admirably. His voice was steady yet aptly boyish, and his stage presence was confident.

Miles’s sister Flora was sung by soprano Kathryn Skemp with great energy and a bright, clear voice that was far too adult sounding for the role of a young girl. As such, she blended very well with the other women on stage, but almost always overpowered Gent when they were singing together. Joyce Castle was vocally solid and dramatically engaging as Mrs. Grose, though she played the part perhaps a bit too dodderingly. And though the rich, powerful voice of Rebecca Nash, who sang the role of the other spirit, Miss Jessel, made it difficult for her to match Rideout’s spooky alluringness, it did evoke an unexpected and moving sorrowfulness.

Conductor Andrew Bisantz led the small group of instrumentalists with skill and an impeccable ear for balance. He seemed content to play a supporting role, letting the singers carry the bulk of the musical drama; a good decision, given the nature of this work. In those instances when the players were the focal point, especially the interludes that fall between each scene, the musicianship was effective and inspired.

Under its new management, the BLO “hopes to take opera in Boston to a new level.”  With this production, it is well on its way.

See related article here.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan. He is also co-founder and co-director of the arts organization WordSong.

2 Comments

  1. During the Friday night performance, Miles was sung by an even younger Ryan Williams, with great success. In an opera like “Pelleas et Melisande”, the boy soprano appears briefly…in “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, he carries the show. “Turn of the Screw” is between these two extremes.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — February 7, 2010 at 4:24 pm

  2. Great review! I disagree, however, with your comment on the projection. Rather than distracting, I felt that video provided several layers of enhancement to the production. First, the Castle was chosen for its resemblance to the setting of the novella/opera. The director hoped to use as much of the building as possible to enhance this choice of space and the projections show the characters in other parts of the castle, namely the gloomy basement. Next, the plot is very complex and intentionally vague. The reader/audience is not necessarily supposed to be clear about the existence of the ghosts, or who is evil, or if the children are being manipulated at all. I believe that the director used the video to give the characters another layer of ambiguity. Allowing for the audience to consider them benevolent former servants at times, or real predators. The libretto remained unaffected, but the directors interpretation of the story as a true mystery was pulled of successfully. At first, it definitely took time to get used to the video, and give in to it; and some of the vignettes seemed only there to fill time. However, by the end I felt that it was an unobtrusive and very effective use of multimedia.

    Comment by Jonah — February 7, 2010 at 5:29 pm

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