Stage: Wednesday, November 12, 2003
Hearing Voices

Fort Worth Opera goes ghostly in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.


Modern music used to have a home in Fort Worth Opera. From the late 1970s through the ’80s, our local company staged productions of Mark Bucci’s satirical Sweet Betsy From Pike, Thomas Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso and The Seagull, Stephen Paulus’ The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Stewart Copeland’s Holy Blood and Crescent Moon shortly after its world premiere in 1990. After that, traditional German and Italian fare took over and sapped all the adventure out of opera-going. Apart from their production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah three years ago, Fort Worth Opera took scarce notice that the 20th century ever happened, musically speaking. However, with the troupe under new direction, their recent staging of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw boldly announced the company’s renewed and heartening interest in modern music.

Despite being acknowledged in his lifetime as England’s first major opera composer in 300 years, Britten never quite got his due, partly because of unspoken bias against him because of his homosexuality (an open secret) and partly due to the jealousy of critics and fellow composers who resented his ability to churn out page after page of beautiful, perfectly proportioned music at an astonishing rate of speed. When the dust finally settles, Britten will emerge as the 20th century’s pre-eminent opera composer, with an output surpassing even that of Puccini or Richard Strauss. His operas are marked by unconventional but ironclad structures, an ingenious deployment of voices and instrumentation, and a system of assigning dramatic meaning to key signatures and key changes that was so foolproof, he never inspired any imitators. With his exquisite literary taste, his ability to evoke characters through vocal music extended even to tiny roles, which is why his operas are so rewarding for singers. His unfailing sense of drama makes his works extraordinarily potent as theater — his Peter Grimes and Billy Budd are brutal, crushing tragedies, and his Albert Herring is a delightful, liberating comedy.

In 1954 he and librettist Myfanwy Piper set Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw to music. It’s about a nameless governess who comes to a country estate to look after two children, Miles and Flora. The children start to behave oddly, and then the governess sees the ghosts of the master’s former valet, Peter Quint, and a previous governess, Miss Jessel. The estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, hints darkly that Quint and Miss Jessel corrupted the children somehow, and the governess becomes bent on protecting Miles and Flora from the ghosts’ evil influence.

With a cast of only six, Britten kept his opera short and his orchestra small. Not an atonal composer himself, he nevertheless borrowed Schönberg’s ideas, using principles of serial music and tone rows to structure the piece. His method would need an accredited musicologist to explain, but it gives the opera an appropriately claustrophobic feel without becoming repetitive. Among the opera’s spooky set pieces: a setting of “Lavenders Blue” with harmonies altered to make it sound disembodied and ghostly; Flora’s lullaby to her doll, with a softly discordant rocking accompaniment; and a faux-Mozart piano piece played by Miles, with strange scales and the two hands playing in different keys. These scenes all contribute to the opera’s gathering sense of foreboding — a music professor once told me that Britten wrote the greatest wrong notes of any composer in history.

Director Ken Cazan staged the work in a minimalist, nonrealistic style, with pictures projected on backdrops to suggest both outdoors and the spiritual netherworld. Occasionally, his ideas were inspired. The tableau ending Act I was appropriately queasy in its intimations of Quint’s sexual desire for the young boy. Strips of white cloth suspended from the ceiling stood in for the trees in a forest glade, and the high-contrast lighting gave the setting an unearthly look. Flora’s lullaby ended with her setting her doll in the lake and sinking it to the bottom, a nice creepy touch.

More often, though, the direction misfired. The use of the kids’ horseplay as comic relief was out of place in such a short and ruthlessly structured opera. Cazan lacked sensitivity to the music, several times pointedly ignoring moments when Britten’s score is obviously cuing action on stage. (It was most notable during a scene near the end in which the governess doubled over in despair, and a brilliant white light came up on her to accentuate her white dress — a striking visual held for entirely too long while the music went on.) Some of the staging was just inexplicable, as when Flora made her final exit holding Miss Jessel’s train, or when the ghost pulled down all the strips of cloth in the glade and carried them offstage.

The biggest problem, though, was that the production simply wasn’t scary enough. There wasn’t any surprise when the ghosts appeared on stage, because they simply walked on in full view during the scene changes. The staging robbed the performers of credibility as ghosts, particularly in the beginning of Act II when they confronted each other and the floorboards squeaked audibly under them as they moved. Contrast this with the clever staging of Circle Theatre’s 1999 production of The Woman in Black, which allowed a ghost to move about the stage silently and appear suddenly. Cazan dedicated much energy to thematic exposition and set design, but he seemed to have had none left over for dramatic momentum or blood-curdling terror. This opera should be a shattering experience, and, in this staging, it wasn’t.

The cast turned out to be a mixed bag as well. Janice Hall’s distinctive soprano was a good fit for the part of the governess and its sensuously beautiful music, but she missed the character’s hysterical tendencies and her fanatical protectiveness. Christopher Penning and Sarah Tannehill as Miles and Flora were hard to hear early on but grew clearer as the evening went on. They sang well, but neither of them gave a sense of children who have been corrupted. With a more attractive voice than one usually finds in the role of Miss Jessel, Jennifer Kethley’s glittering soprano contrasted nicely with Hall’s weightier one. Carl Halvorson’s tenor didn’t have the menacing edge one might have liked for Peter Quint, but it did have the right sort of allure, and he acted the role intelligently. Best of all was Joyce Castle as Mrs. Grose, with her enviable enunciation and an appropriately aged but sturdy mezzo voice. Her despairing outburst at the first mention of Quint’s name (“Dear God! Is there no end to his dreadful ways?”) was glorious.

For all its blemishes, the mere fact of this production’s existence here was good news. Too many people think opera is an antiquated art form that saw its best days in the 1800s. Putting on The Turn of the Screw is a sign that Fort Worth Opera is ready to show music-lovers how vibrant, relevant, and thrilling this form of musical theater can be.

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