By Victoria Looseleaf
…so to speak. Not wishing to show her age (The Leaf arrived in the City of Angels as a mere babe, trust her), but to prove she’s been a cultural maven for some time now, she was actually in the audience when Los Angeles Opera last presented Benjamin Britten’s wonderfully eerie opus, The Turn of the Screw, in – egad – 1991. But what a difference two decades make. This new production (originally created for Glyndebourne Festival Opera and directed by Jonathan Kent in his L.A. Opera debut), was mounted by Francesca Gilpin, and it is a stunner.
Based on the 1898 Henry James novella (there’s no dearth of adaptations, from films and TV versions to plays and a graphic novel), this is an ostensible ghost story. Set in the English countryside, the plot features a Governess (the divine Patricia Racette), who arrives to take care of two children (both making LAO debuts, Ashley Emerson’s Flora and the astonishing 12-year old Michael Kepler Meo as Miles, whose poise and artistic demeanor recall a pubescent Dirk Bogarde).
Simple enough. Not! Swimming in homoeroticism (homophobia?), the two-act, 16-scene work deals with truth and lies, that omnipresent plumbing the depths of the human psyche and…the big one, good versus evil. So, too, does Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance 3D film, which I recently covered for the L.A. Times – read my review here – and should definitely not be mentioned in the same breath as Britten, but The Leaf can’t resist the shameless plug thing.)
Yeah: Bring it on!
Britten and his life partner and muse, Peter Pears
Britten, who was gay and lived with the tenor Peter Pears, for whom he composed a number of roles, including the Narrator/Peter Quint in Screw, provides an abundance of glorious orchestration. No matter there are only 13 players in the pit, Maestro James Conlon coaxed a precise, textured sound, especially pronounced in the harp – to give the story (libretto by Myfanwy Piper), a shining, thrilling accompaniment. So: When the Governess arrives, she is greeted by a staid housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Ann Murray, in yet another LAO debut), and shortly thereafter encounters those creepy specters, the dead valet Quint (William Burden, ditto re his debut) and the erstwhile governess, a wild-eyed, Elvira-becoiffed Miss Jessel (Tamara Wilson), who had met her unfortunate demise by drowning.
No fairy tale here, where trouble had obviously been afoot (as well as in, er other bodily parts), which then makes for the continued presence of doom. Indeed, it seems that Quint had had his way with both spinster Jessel and Miles. The lyric, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” sung by Quint and Jessel at the top of Act 2, define the work as deliciously decadent. It’s also shot through with sorrow and resignation.
As the screw turns, and turns again, there’s decidedly no going back.
Paul Brown’s fabulous minimalist set (a large moveable panel of reflecting windows; an enormously forlorn looking bare tree branch), and Mad Men-like costumes add to the emotional fervor so exquisitely rendered in Britten’s score. David Manion’s sumptiously moody lighting also complements.
And more good news: LA Opera is embarking on a Britten festival to commemorate the composer’s centennial in 2013, with Billy Budd and Albert Herring both on tap again. It would also be beyond wonderful if Britten’s Death in Venice, which I was privileged to see at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 2008 (read my essay, Debt in Venice, here), was also slated for the multi-year celebration. In the interim, bravo to Los Angeles Opera, in its 25th anniversary season, for this deliciously daring production.
The dreamy dancing boyz in Britten’s Death in Venice
In the interim: Go get screwed, dear readers. You have just four more chances (March 20, 25, 27 and 30), to catch this marvelous work by Benjamin Britten.