The Turn of the Screw presented by The Dallas Opera is a fantastically creepy tale woven of gorgeous voices and sublime sets. The story, based on the novella of the same name by Henry James, tells the tale of a governess and her charges. The nameless young woman is hired to care for two children in rural England. Her employer, their guardian, has impressed upon her quite strenuously that she is to take care of the children without contacting him for any reason. Upon her arrival at the country estate Bly, she is both charmed by her surroundings and delighted with the children. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, greets her warmly and they all settle in together. The light atmosphere quickly turns dark as the governess begins seeing the ghosts of her employer’s former valet, Peter Quint, and her predecessor, Miss Jessel. What ensues is a fight for the childrens’ souls as Peter Quint tries to claim Miles, the boy, as his own and Miss Jessel clings to Flora, the girl, for companionship in her eternal misery. The question is, does this ghostly evil exist, or is the governess going mad? While the novella never fully answers the question, the opera seems to land on the side of the ghosts’ existence.
Mid-century composers do not typically appeal to me with their atonal and dissonant melodies, but Benjamin Britten’s score envelops the audience with its haunting 12 tone themes and unsettling passages. Guest conductor Nicole Paiement leads the small 13-member orchestra with elegance and excellence, eliciting a moving performance from the musicians. Emma Bell gives a fine interpretation of the Governess, her rich soprano effortlessly depicting the character’s journey from innocent optimism to tortured angst to tragic despair. Mrs. Grose, played by Dolora Zajick, has a huge and impressive voice with velvety undertones and expansive expression, and one almost feels that she is holding back so as not to blow away the others. Minutes away from his voice changing, Oliver Nathanielsz’s angelic soprano imbues the character of Miles with beauty and innocence and provides a hair-raising counterpoint to Peter Quint’s evil influence when it begins to shine through the boy’s words. Ashley Emmerson’s Flora is cute and playful. Alexandra LoBianco sings the role of Miss Jessel with shadowy depth as she slinks about the stage, reminding one somewhat more of a bedraggled witch than an ethereal ghost. Finally, Peter Quint and the Prologue are played by tenor William Burden; vocally and visually Burden projects an ominous, commanding presence, sinister charm dripping from every note and dangerous intensity cloaking every gaze.
The glorious set, designed by Paul Brown, adds to the eerie atmosphere of the production. 16 scenes arrange themselves before our eyes as set pieces glide on and off stage and a wall of windows turns and tilts and settles into place. A tree branch floats above many scenes, appearing at times to be nothing more than a branch and at times to be an otherworldly phantasm looming over Bly’s inhabitants.
All told, it was a compelling production, beautifully portrayed and masterfully played and sung. Those who are intimately acquainted with Henry James’ novella will be troubled by liberties taken in the libretto, but what is presented fits the dramatic demands of a modern opera. And even though I am not a great fan of Britten’s work, it was a weird and wonderful evening of opera not to be missed.