Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Jayce Ogren
Director: Sam Buntrock
Governess: Sara Jakubiak
Prologue/Peter Quint: Dominic Armstrong
Miss Jessel: Jennifer Goode Cooper
Miles: Benjamin P. Wenzelberg
Flora: Lauren Worsham
Mrs Grose: Sharmay Musacchio
After The New York City Opera's rewarding production of Thomas Adès' Powder her Face, I felt totally confident in my eventual decision to go back to BAM's Howard Gilman Opera house for their second chamber opera of the season, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. This one was definitely more of a shot in the dark for me as I only knew that it was based on a novella by Henry James revolving around two kids, two ghosts and a governess in the English countryside. But I had absolutely loved the production of Britten's Peter Grimes I saw in Washington, DC years ago and my Brooklynite colleague Marlena was game, so off we went across the East River on Thursday night.
Drawing inspiration from a well-known book has some obvious advantages such as name recognition and the curiosity of the cognoscenti, but it can also set some pretty high expectations. For better or worse, I had not read the original Turn of the Screw. However, I had heard of its increasingly baffling plot, its frustrating lack of closure and all the mutually exclusive New Criticism theories that had sprung from it. That of course made the whole endeavor even more intriguing. At the end of the day, I decided to put any overly intellectual exercise aside, take the opera as it came and enjoy it for what it reputedly was: A compelling dramatic work with an inspired musical score.
The central character is the nameless governess, and the role is all the more critical in that all the various interpretations of the story stem from her: Is she truthful or is she deranged? In this production, the part was masterfully filled by soprano Sara Jakubiak, who easily went from demure job seeker to fiercely protective mother hen. Unquestionably blessed with a luminous, deeply expressive voice, she can also boast of some impressive acting skills, all of which significantly contributed to making the audience whole-heartedly root for her from the very beginning.
As Peter Quint, tenor Dominic Armstrong totally looked the part of the former valet who may very well love little boys too much with a bloody wound on the side of his Frankenstein-like white face. To complete his ghoulish physique, his voice was appropriately creepy and commanding, making him more of a disturbing menace every time he showed up. Moreover, as if that was not enough, he proved his wide range as a singer during the Prologue, which he belted out with utmost poise and precision.
Soprano Jennifer Goode Copper was the other ghost, the pregnant Miss Jessel, whose scarily disheveled looks made you think that she had had a very rude awakening after a really bad Halloween night. Although the pitiful character did not seem to mean much harm, her voice was uncompromising in its profound despair and cut-throat ferociousness.
The two children were impersonated by 13-year-old treble Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Miles and 30-year-old soprano Lauren Worsham as Flora. Remarkably, this set-up worked very well. Benjamin P. Wenzelberg's engaging voice may not be able to project clearly all the way to the last row yet, but he wonderfully conveyed Miles' innocence and confusion. A predictably more seasoned pro, and an eclectic one too, Lauren Worsham was a genuinely touching Flora, the sweet young girl who cannot begin to understand what is happening around her.
To wrap up this rock-solid cast, contralto Sharmay Musacchio nailed the part of the housekeeper Mrs Grose, a gentle soul who will eventually become overwhelmed by the supernatural events.
Although the original story was taking place in the mid-19th-century, this production moved it firmly in the late 1970s-early 1980s. This allowed the introduction of a few hints at popular horror movies, such Poltergeist with the haunted TV set, but I'd err to say that it also caused the partial loss of the original charm, mystery and relevance of the novel. After all, it is unlikely that today's children bow and curtsy upon meeting their new nanny for the first time.
The costumes and sets were simple and efficient, and the changing arrangements of the light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling did wonders in establishing the various moods, even if their overall brightness had a tendency to convey modern reality more than spooky phenomena.
Britten's score, which assuredly combines tonality and dissonance, provides a superb musical accompaniment to the plot and characters. On Thursday night, the young conductor Jayce Ogren kept a solid grasp on his talented orchestra, which delivered a richly nuanced performance. The confrontations scenes were intense, the children rhyme Malo eerie, the ghostly appearances mystifying.
In short, everything fell brilliantly into place again for the second big win of the New York City Opera's 2012-2013 season.
If they keep up the good work, their uncertain future is bound to become very bright.