By Benjamin Britten
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999
Conducted by David Sloss
Directed by Jonathon Field

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Director Jonathon Field, aided by an outstanding design team, has crafted a harrowing production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw for West Bay Opera. With creative scenic effects by set designer Jean-François Revon and mood-setting lighting by John G. Rathman, this WBO production emphasizes the scary psychological aspects of Myfanwy Piper's libretto, adapted from Henry James' 1898 thriller of the same name. Music director David Sloss, conducting the 13-member orchestra and six-person cast, works in tandem with his artistic colleagues, bringing out the nuances of Britten's complex score.

The story focuses on a young English woman, the Governess (soprano Heather Meyer), who is hired by a London man to look after his two wards at Bly, his remote country house. He puts her in complete charge and tells her he wants to hear nothing more from her. Upon arriving, she meets the children, Miles (treble Thomas Allen) and Flora (soprano Kathleen Robinson), as well as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (mezzo-soprano Elspeth Franks). All seems fine until she sees a strange man, who turns out to be the ghost of Peter Quint (tenor Michael P. Mendelsohn). He's the former valet who apparently sexually abused both Miles and the children's former governess, the late Miss Jessel (soprano Jane Hammett), whose ghost also appears. Convinced that the two ghosts are there to claim the children, the Governess tries to save them, with tragic results.

This production successfully captures the emotional ups and downs of the libretto and score while gradually building the suspense. Using a scrim throughout the production lends an otherworldly air. The scrim also serves as a kind of video screen for the highly effective technique of projecting black and white side views of the ghosts when they appear. It's a marvelously eerie effect, especially during the harrowing climax to Act 1, when the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel try to persuade the children into following them.

Less effective is the projection of the ghosts' lines at varying points across the scrim in some scenes. On the other hand, this particular device overcomes the production's major shortcoming: diction. Because the libretto is written and performed in English, no supertitles are used. However, the nature of operatic singing is such that it's not always easy to understand the words, especially in the soprano range. Therefore, many companies such as the San Francisco Opera use supertitles even for English to enhance the audience's comprehension. Based on comments overheard at intermission and afterward, it seems they would have been a welcome addition here.

Nevertheless, the production works well. Revon keeps his sets simple and flexible, allowing for varied playing areas as well as fast changes. Connie Strayer's Victorian costumes are in keeping with the characters, Rathman's lighting plays a crucial role, complementing Field's precise staging. In this staging, there are no superfluous gestures. Every movement and expression advances the action or reflects characters' inner thoughts to make this production true music theater.

All six singers are fine actors as well as excellent singers. Meyer's Governess is a naive young woman who gradually becomes more terrified yet determined in her quest to save the children. Allen, a seventh-grader, has an angelic voice and polished acting skills as Miles. Mendelsohn as Quint has a clear, bright tenor voice and good diction. He also sings the prologue, in which only his legs are seen. Franks as Mrs. Grose, Robinson as Flora and Hammett as Miss Jessel also are noteworthy.

As is traditional at WBO, this production is double-cast, except for Franks, who appears in all performances. Hence this review concerns only the singers seen May 23 and scheduled again on May 29 and 31. The other cast features J. Wingate Greathouse as Quint, Stacy Rigg as the Governess, Jesse Lampert as Miles, Diane Squires as Flora and Ellen St. Thomas as Miss Jessel.

This production of a seldom-seen opera deserves bravos for its creative artistry and musical excellence.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:42 PST