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Monday, May 28, 2012

Opera Review: Possession Obsession

Opera Moderne presents The Turn of the Screw.
by Paul Pelkonen
Promotional art for The Turn of the Screw. Image © 2012 Opera Moderne.
On Saturday night, the Opera Moderne, a modest Manhattan company new to this publication ended its 2012 season with a taut performance of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Symphony Space.

Britten's opera (the libretto is by Myfanwy Piper) is not a straightforward adaptation of  Henry James' ambiguous ghost story. In Ms. Piper's version, the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are actual supernatural forces, preying on two innocent children at the Essex country estate of Bly. (James' novella leaves the reader unsure if the Governess is seeing things or slowly going insane.)

The clock-like score is one of Britten's tightest creations, a concise re-telling of the story with key changes that serve to increase dramatic tension, placing stress on the listener. Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti conducted a performance of great clarity and beauty, tightening the tension to an uncomfortable degree as evil took hold of the two innocent children.

In this staging, directed by Luke Leonard, it was implied that the two children are possessed from the start and that the ghosts' real target is the Governess as some sort of living vessel for the spirit of Miss Jessel. Soprano Anna Noggle gave a performance that teetered from prim and proper and finally collapsed into total insanity. Her letter scene and last confrontation with Miles were the last turns of Britten's screw, a kind of psychotic re-enactment that somehow recalled the end of Wagner's Tristan. She was well matched, dramatically and vocally by mezzo Julia Teitel as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose.

The advantage of having real ghosts written into Britten's opera is that Peter Quint becomes a tenor part, sung here by the promising singer Glenn Seven Allen. Despite being hidden under unfortunate (and cheesy looking) zombie makeup, Mr. Allen is a potent singer with a swagger that made Quint an appealing rogue. As Miss Jessel, Elspeth Davis' potent mezzo-soprano produced hair-raising moments, especially in the lake scene, with a marvelous use of projection screens and body doubles to create the impression of a watery grave.

The most important role in Screw is Miles, the boy who is possessed by Quint. Here, the part was sung by 12-year old boy soprano Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, a promising young singer who is studying piano at Juilliard and the 92nd Street Y. Even at this early age, Mr. Wenzelberg used stage experience to make Milo a genuine force of evil, all the more unsettling for being so sweetly sung. His sister Flora is a smaller part, but Ms. Vivan Krich-Brinton was a perfect foil, staring straight ahead at times and moving in eerie lockstep during "Tom, Tom the Piper's Son."

This simple production put the orchestra onstage at Symphony Space, with the singers working awkwardly around the chamber-sized ensemble. A projection screen raised and lowered, representing the lake at Bly and the weakening barriers between the living and the dead. While a clever idea, the moving screen led to blocking problems as the singers were forced to work around and through it.

The more serious technical flaw that evening was a repeated cueing issue with the digitally projected surtitles. These unfortunate translations would occasionally stop altogether and then flash above the actors in quick succession. Which begs the question: If you have singers that produce clear tone and diction, and a successful balance with the modest orchestra, why were titles needed at all?
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.