* Notes *
Late in September, Oakland Opera Theater was forced to move from their location on Broadway at 2nd Street to 3rd Street at Martin Luther King Junior Way. Nonetheless, the company presented Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954) from October 5 to 14. The production was set in Louisiana instead of England, which was lost on me until I read the description later. I had wondered why Mama Grouse had pronounced the voiced dental fricative /ð/ as plosive [d]. Had I read Henry James' novella, I would have noted that this character is called Mrs. Grose in the text.
The singing was solid. Anja Strauss turned out a fine performance as the Governess, though I was afraid her eyes might pop out of her head by the end, her voice is clear and pretty. Her diction in English was nearly perfect, only her way of saying "of" with a voiceless rather than a voiced fricative, betrayed her origins. It was a bit difficult to tell how exactly Gerald Seminatore and Marta Johansen were as the ghosts Quint and Miss Jessel, as they sang from offstage, but they seemed good though not terribly distinctive. Seminatore's voice cracked slightly as the Prologue. Lori Willis was convincing as Mama Grouse, though she must be rather young, she was able to pull off playing the old housekeeper well. Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej were a creepy pair as the children Miles and Flora, Fisher's voice is lovely but quiet, Matej seemed slightly off key at a few points, but her volume was good.
The orchestra only requires an ensemble of thirteen, which suits the small scale of the Oakland Opera Theater. Deirdre McClure conducted, and everything seemed to go well. Because there was no pit, the orchestra was seated stage right. It made the balance between singers and orchestra off, but it was quite easy to hear the singers because of this.
The opera is about 2 hours long and is divided into a prologue and sixteen scenes. I found the music tiresomely unlyrical, and unlike Billy Budd, the libretto has no entertaining lines. I was taken with the use of nursery rhymes such as "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" and "Lavender's Blue." My favorite was the homonym aria "Malo, Malo" sung by Miles.
The production was of a higher quality than I have seen from Oakland Opera Theater in the past. The costumes did not look like they were leftover Halloween costumes, in fact, everyone looked pretty smart. The stage had a piece that rotated, so the many scenes could be easily changed. Most of the furniture looked appropriate, though some of the pictures on the walls looked a little shoddy. There were some simple aerial acrobatics done by the ghosts, but the singers were kept offstage and the acting left to the performance artists from The Starlings Trapeze Duo.
I found the insertion of the Mammy Caricature in the guise of Mama Grouse disquieting. One one hand, it is good to see non-whites on stage, particularly when they are as talented as Lori Willis. On the other hand, this ugly stereotype was not delved into, so the usage smacks of tokenism and cultural appropriation.
Overall, I was mostly engaged by the spectacle aspect of the opera, rather than the music or the drama. It was difficult to feel sympathetic to the plight of the Governess, she is not fleshed out as a character, and even less still for the children, who are just frightening. I am not sure if this is because of the libretto, the music, the production, or my own ignorance. I was, however, impressed by Oakland Opera Theater's tenacity, and hope to see them thrive their new space.
* Tattling *
The house was not full last Thursday night, there were a few rows that had no one in them at all. Even still I was nearly falling out of my front aisle seat, as the narrow chairs were zip-tied together and someone chose to sit next to me. The performance started with the ringing of a telephone, which was not intended. Otherwise, people did whisper a little, but this was minor and not distracting.