The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw at SF Lyric

Cowell * Notes *
San Francisco Lyric Opera's production of The Turn of the Screw opened last night at Cowell Theatre. The singing was very good all across the board. Interestingly, half of the singers were also in the Oakland Opera Theater production from last October. Brooks Fisher (Miles) has grown quite a bit in the intervening months, he is now taller than Madelaine Matej (Flora). His angelic voice is somewhat louder now, but there were a few brief moments when he was difficult to hear because of the orchestra. It may have been better if he was not so far upstage when singing with all of the instruments. Madelaine Matej sounded slightly flat during the end of Act I, but was otherwise fine, her volume was always good, and her acting was strong. Soprano Lara Bruckmann did not make much impression on me as Miss Jessel, but perhaps this was because tenor Trey Costerisan was so splendid as Peter Quint. Costerisan's voice is exceedingly pretty, both warm and brilliant. Kathleen Moss, who just sang Judith with Berkeley Opera, was occasionally overwhelming as Mrs. Grose, as her voice was the most powerful in the cast. Moss was able to rein it in for the most part, and her acting was convincing. Anja Strauss was impressive in the principal role, her Governess is certainly on the frightening, hysterical side. Her tones were lucid and crystalline. The orchestra played well under the direction of Barnaby Palmer, the musicians were perfectly synchronized with each other and with the singers. The only disappointment was keyboard used instead of a real piano. The keyboard was noticeable, it sounded strange.

The production was not as creepy as the one at Oakland Opera Theater, perhaps because of the choreography and stage direction. The ending was a bit weird in this regard, it would be hard to understand exactly what was happening if one had not read Henry James' novella. As far as the scenery was concerned, the projections used were great when static, but whenever they were used to portray the spectral or mad, they veered into unintentional tackiness. At one point in Act II, a heretofore static window projection multiplied and warped, and the effect was just silly and not scary at all. Thankfully, the background was easy to ignore, as it was not in constant motion, and the otherworldliness came out best in the music. Also, Meghan Muser's costumes were a fine distraction, every one of the outfits was absolutely gorgeous.

* Tattling *
One person booed stage director Heather Carolo, presumably because he did not like the ending. Also, t
he charming person who sang along to La Bohème was there again, right next to me, as we both have subscriptions. I was able to shift one seat away from her, as the theater was half empty. She is, apparently, not terribly familiar with the work of Benjamin Britten, and was unable to accompany the singers. She did have fun during the intermission listing which operas of Britten she could remember, naming five out of fourteen, I could hardly do better. She also declared it a shame that so few people had turned out and mentioned that Joshua Kosman would be reviewing this Sunday's performance. However, the music is disquieting and is meant to make one feel uncomfortable, which is certainly not for everyone.

Portland Opera's 2008-2009 Season

September 26- October 4 2008: La Traviata
November 7-15 2008: Fidelio
February 6-14 2009: The Turn of the Screw
March 13-21 2009:
La Calisto
May 8-16 2009: Rigoletto

Francesco Cavalli's La Calisto looks like one of the only Baroque options for opera on the West Coast next season.

2008-2009 Portland Opera Site

The Turn of the Screw at OOT

Turnofthescrew * 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.