There were some unforgettable moments in the production last night as New England Conservatory began its limited run of Britten/Piper’s chamber opera, The Turn of the Screw at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
In 1898 Henry James first published The Turn of the Screw, as a serial in Collier’s Weekly during the first few months of the year; in that autumn it appeared in book form. That same year Herman Melville began Billy Budd, which remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death and was not published until 1924. I mention these two texts because both became the basis for Benjamin Britten operas; I also found myself thinking about Billy Budd during last night’s performance—and about Auden’s poem, “Herman Melville.” Auden (a friend of Britten) famously declared:
Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table,
And we are introduced to Goodness every day.
This opera gives the lie to Auden’s opening pronouncement and also calls into question the existence of Goodness in the world. Henry James’s novella is much more ambiguous, drawing power from this ambiguity and building into an unsettling and creepy tale. Scholars still debate James’s text. What happened, who saw what, what caused what, and what of the larger question of Evil? Even though it reads like a generic Gothic tale from the early 19th-century, there are no tidy resolutions or firm conclusions at the work’s end—and for this reason The Turn of the Screw stays with the reader for a long time afterwards. As Henry James put it in the New York edition preface, “make [the reader] think the evil, make him think of it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.” It seems fitting that Britten/Piper’s operatic take on The Turn of the Screw was commissioned in 1954 by the Venice Biennale and premiered on September 14, 1954 at Teatro La Fenice; for the last two centuries (at least) Venice has been linked with tales of chill and thrill, the creepiness of Evil, and—since Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (published 1912), if not before, with queer tales of tortured passion.
How do you stage ambiguity? Librettist Myfanwy Piper and composer Benjamin Britten tried. Piper stated, “neither Britten nor I ever intended to interpret the work, only to re-create it for a different medium” (1985 Cambridge Opera Handbook on The Turn of the Screw). Words on the page allow for greater ambiguity than bodies moving about an operatic stage. At the same time, musical ambiguity can occlude verbal meaning, shadowing or usurping the text to different ends. Factor in the “singers’ diction”, add the visualization (blocking, costuming, lighting, sets), and there is great potential for ambiguity, for an opera filled with chills and surprises, reveling in the unheimlich. This carefully structured and tightly composed, highly atmospheric chamber opera in two acts is a wonderful beginning to celebrations of Britten’s centenary.
I have written the above as background to this NEC production. The program book is filled with advertisements and donor lists; the professional staff involved in the production have biographies but none of the student musicians does. There is a brief synopsis of the opera’s action (although not distinguishing between the scenes). Tony Woodcock’s letter (inside front cover) mentions the Britten centenary. I do not understand why any group, most especially any educational institution, would squander the opportunity to say a few words about the music being performed—background, history, salient points of interpretation—to an audience gathered to bear testimony to the time and effort, the energy and thought, the planning and marshaling of resources, that goes into producing any concert, and most especially an opera.
This production uses a set design by Cameron Anderson which is minimal, atmospheric, and suggestive while retaining the flexibility to change from scene to scene as needed. The grand drape, closed when the audience entered the house, looks like the cover of an old book (leather, boards, metal bindings and clasps) or even a castle gate. The Prologue (book in hand) took place before this front curtain; a panel opened to reveal the Governess, as though seen through a train car window as she made her way from London to Bly in East Anglia (Act I, scene 1). The main set, used for all household scenes, included a grand and curving (illusory) staircase. Behind this a backdrop, in watery and muted colors of grey and green, included a high-up panel, where Peter Quint appeared in the tower (I, 4), and, closer to stage level, a window (I, 5). For the schoolroom (I, 6; II, 3), a desk and chairs were wheeled in, as was a bed for the bedroom scene (II, 4) or a piano (II, 6). The supernumeraries, Suzanne Grogan and Clara Reitz, dressed as uniformed domestic servants, took charge of scene changes; I found this incorporation of the stage business into the production a very effective and appropriate device. For outdoor scenes (“The Tower,” I, 4; “The Lake,” I, 7), green vertical strips flew down to stage level, representing trees. Overall, I found this scene design to be highly effective and well-suited to the opera—“chamber scene design,” if you will. My only complaint had to do with the outdoor scenes: I was distracted by the grand staircase at the back of the stage behind the trees, and I do wish they had at least closed a curtain in front of that. I do not think it part of Anderson’s design that monitors mounted to the left and right projected images of the conductor towards the stage. This might have been useful for the small cast of singers, but the projecting light cast a glow that fought at times with the stage lighting and distracted those in the audience seated close to the stage. The glow of television monitors seemed out of place with the setting of this opera.
The costumes, designed by Katherine Stebbins, were mostly based on Victorian fashion. Long sleeves and skirts, pinafores and frocks, held the stage. The Governess often appeared in bright blue and white, as though to reinforce her Goodness or her youthful innocence; the children also wore brighter colors—Flora a palette similar to The Governess, while Miles wore a burgundy velvet tunic. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, wore more sombre colors. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the spectres, wore clothes of a matching grey-green print, not dissimilar to the stage backdrop. Jessel’s short dress sleeves were complimented by opera-length black gloves; the costuming marked their status as revenant and Evil. At one point during II, 1, Miss Jessel was lying on the stage, Peter Quint on top of her, and the crinoline from her dress rose up to create the illusion of pregnancy. Given the spectres’ struggle to gain control of the children, I found this image apt. I do wish the suit of Peter Quint had not been cut so tight, the hemline so high, and featuring a high black collar underneath the jacket; combined with his pompadour, I kept having visions of Eddie Izzard or a young Elvis when he appeared on stage. This look was glaringly anachronistic with the otherwise well-realized and coherent costuming.
So much for the visual dimension; we come now to the aural dimension and the subject dearest to the hearts of BMInt readers. Douglas Kinney Frost, conductor, led a solid and responsive instrumental ensemble of 14 musicians. I was pleased to see the musicians leave the pit and take to the stage during curtain calls for a well-deserved bow. Britten’s instrumental music is challenging, and the small forces place greater demands on the musicians; all rose to this challenge. As for the singers, I heard one of two casts (who will be taking the stage again Monday night).
The singing was, in the main, quite good. There were some issues with diction, as the varying diphthongs on the “dear” in Mr. Grose’s “Dear God” in I, 5 (which was an isolated occurrence and might be attributable to nerves); the absence of final consonants in some of Peter Quint’s lines and in general a dearth of consonants among several singers (which are torture to sing but crucial to communicate the words and meaning) had me reverting to the supertitles. David Charles Tay sang the Prologue, delivered with an overly-precise enunciation (to distinguish narration from acting perhaps?) and also the role of Peter Quint. He sang well and embodied a degree of bad-boy sexiness, swagger and charisma which suited the role of Quint. The cantilena in I, 8 has Quint (marked as “unseen” in the score, but here visible up the grand staircase at the back of the stage) sing “Miles” in melismatic fashion; Tay brought out the “my” in the name perhaps a little too much, although this passage does voice Quint’s pleasure in the Other (and sound out Lacan’s imaginary, as Philip Brett notes). Asha Carroll as The Governess has a sweet voice but there were balance issues, not all of which are the result of Britten’s scoring. Gillian Cotter as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, sang with richness and conviction, and had a great stage presence—direct, earnest—that captured the character nicely. Susanna Su as Miles strove to combine sweet innocence with deeper undercurrents; I did not detect a charisma which captivated all with whom he came into contact, rather, I noted smarminess and glimmers of madness. Su gave a haunting rendition of the aria “Malo, malo, malo” (I, 6). Bridget Haile sang Flora well (it is not a large part), but the acting overplayed the character’s brattiness. Synthia Pullum sang Miss Jessel with great power, verve, and conviction (and nice touches of Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre).
As Joshua Major, Stage Director of this production told Susan Miron in our earlier article [here], “I try to keep the ambiguous element present for the audience.” There was less ambiguity in this staging than I would have liked. I found the brattiness and smarminess overwhelmed the uncertainties. Any fascination the character of Miles or Quint or Jessel might hold was largely obscured. If Britten did indeed identify with Peter Quint in this opera, he would be most displeased. As it was, I found it a shame that the well-performed music was occluded by some of the acting and physical presences on the stage; after all, opera is more than just words and music.