Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

March 13, 2011

William Burden and Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

It has been a particularly strong season for Los Angeles Opera overall. Following a bold and satisfying Ring cycle last summer, the company has managed to weather the economic storms of the last season with particularly satisfying productions almost always with excellent musical values. And in keeping with this recent trend, the final production of the 2010/2011 season, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, opened gloriously on Saturday after a 20 year absence. Based on a Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw is a seriously creepy, dark and twisted story. Not that this fact distinguishes it from any other opera, but the story makes plenty of very disturbing implications that raise far more questions for characters and audience than are answered over its course. An unnamed Governess arrives at her new employer’s country estate. She is welcomed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, as well as her new wards Flora and Miles and given strict instructions that above all else she should not contact or bother their guardian in any circumstances. Soon however, it becomes clear that the estate is haunted by a former servant, Peter Quint, and his once lover and the former Governess, Miss Jessel. The new Governess becomes convinced that the children are aware of these ghosts and worse yet, the ghosts are trying to seduce the children away from the Governess’ care. Much of the unfolding action is implied and references to the supernatural aspects of the story can be vague and open-ended. Britten wrote a masterful chamber orchestra sized score for the work that is one of the most evocative in 20th-century opera.

Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

As with L.A. Opera’s hugely successful run of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the company again imported perhaps one of the most attractive and interesting European productions of The Turn of the Screw it could find, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 staging for Glyndebourne opera which will be revived there this coming summer. Kent’s fascinating staging, which was directed here by associate Fracesca Gilpin, manages to reflect both the creepiness and the supernatural aspects of the story in a very powerful and condensed way. The huge white room of the set is dominated by a giant rotating wall of window panes that effectively divides the space perpetually into inside and outside. The windows also act at times as the surface of a lake as it casts reflections around the walls of the set. Concentric rotating rings on the stage floor whisk set elements on and off stage and giant gnarly disembodied tree branches lower into view. As the opera proceeds the originally strict division between the inside and outside world begins to break down in subtle ways as the ghosts begin to cross barriers and further inhabit the living world of the other characters.

William Burden (behind) and Michael Kepler Meo in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

Perhaps Kent’s boldest move is to update the action to post-WWII, late 50s Britain from the novella’s late Victorian original. Not that updating an opera's setting is new, but Kent's decision to do so has some interesting implications in this case. While it removes some of the work's late-Victorian and outright Gothic sheen, it heightens some of the more disturbing contemporary undercurrents of the story. The specters of insanity and pedophilia haunt this story at every turn. Kent’s setting makes them palpable to the audience now that the action unfolds immediately prior to the notorious Moors murders committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley that would rock the UK in the early 1960s. In a way, Kent’s version of the Governess represents a whole nation on the brink of losing its children in part to a process of post-war cultural and moral decay. It’s a deft idea that works brilliantly.

Patricia Racette in The Turn of the Screw Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2011

Of course all of this would be for naught, if it weren’t for a top-rate cast and musical performance under L.A. Opera’s heroic James Conlon. The star of the show is Patricia Racette making her role debut as the Governess. Racette has a varied career in a wide repertory including many Verdi and Puccini roles. And as much as I’ve admired her Butterfly, I think her Britten work as both Ellen Orford and here may be among my favorite roles for her. She sounded lovely in conjunction both with Ann Murray’s Mrs. Grose and Tamara Wilson’s Miss Jessel. The bright, light tenor William Burden was finally making his L.A. Opera debut as the predatory Peter Quint and Ashley Emerson sang the role of Flora. But perhaps the performance that was most striking to me was that of 12 year-old Michael Kepler Meo as Miles. This young vocalist has quite a career going having sung Miles in several places over the last two years. He’ll also appear in Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon at New York City Opera later this spring. He vocally stands tall against much more experienced singers here and dominates the scenes he is in with his certainty and comfort in the part. If I had any quibble with the performance it would probably be one of scale. This is undoubtedly a chamber opera and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is notorious for swallowing sound. From where I sat, things sounded great, but I wonder if farther back in the house if the sound got lost. In any event, I highly recommend you see The Turn of the Screw while it’s here in L.A. with such a great cast; and if you’re worried about the acoustics, this would be a great time to splurge and sit close. The show runs through March 30.


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