Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Countdown to Britten Centennial: Conlon, Racette and Burden Impress in Enigmatic “Turn of the Screw” – March 12, 2011

March 15th, 2011

The Los Angeles Opera is only mounting six mainstage operas for its 2010-11 season, but of these six the company mounted works by three composers whose bicentennial or centennial years will be celebrated in 2013. Wagner and Verdi were represented by popular core works, respectively “Lohengrin” and “Rigoletto”, but to honor Britten, L. A. Opera chose a more intimate and less familiar work, “The Turn of the Screw”.

With its 13 member orchestra and cast of four adults and two children, the work is only rarely presented on major company mainstages, although a new production was recently developed for the Houston Grand Opera (see my review with a relevant discussion of the opera at Houston’s Haunting, Inscrutable “Turn of the Screw” – January 29, 2010.)

Patricia Racette etched yet another of her dramatic portraits with her role debut as the Governess, who, against her better judgment, has accepted a position in charge of two small children in a rural mansion in the south of England. Racette and Tamara Wilson, the spinto soprano who sang this role also at Houston Grand Opera, are the only cast members to have sung at Los Angeles Opera before.

Racette conveyed the range of the Governess’ emotions – disquiet, compassion, terror, near hysteria, as she learns of the existence of and interacts with the mansion’s two ghosts, who have mysterious rapport with the two children who are her charges.

Below: The Governess (Patricia Racette) arrives at the Bly Mansion; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. ]

The performance provided opportunities for the four Los Angeles Opera debuts. Tenor William Burden, observing the never broken tradition of singing the parts of the Narrator who sets up the story and the ghost, Peter Quint, proved effective in yet another Britten opera (See my review of his Captain Budd at Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008.)

The Mrs Grose is the distinguished Irish mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, Dame Commander, OBE. She made a striking impression in this part, usually considered a “late career” role.

[Below: Mrs Grose (Ann Murray, center) joins the games of Flora (Ashley Emerson, left) and Miles (Michael Kepler Meo, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Of the two child performers, the veteran was the Miles, Michael Kepler Meo, who also appeared triumphantly in the Houston production.  Presumably nearing the end of his active association with this role as a boy soprano, he is an arresting performer, able to project his hauntingly beautiful voice in the spacious Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as he did in Houston’s large George E. Brown Theater.

In the second act, in which Miles is playing the piano, Meo the actor brings realism to his character Miles’ exubertant virtuoso piano playing with visible mastery of the complex fingering of Britten’s piano music, suggesting that Meo has much more than passing familiarity with the piano keyboard.

The Flora, Ashley Emerson, also impressive in her Los Angeles Opera debut, portrayed the scenes in which she interacts with the ghost of Miss Jessel chillingly.

[Below: Flora (Ashley Emerson, left) and Miles (Michael Kepler Meo) play together outside; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Conductor James Conlon has added  to his list of multi-season Los Angeles Opera projects a new round of Britten operas preparing for the composer’s centennial. Although Britten wrote the score for a bakers’ dozen sized orchestra, Conlon noted that every member of the orchestra is expected to be a virtuoso on that person’s instrument.

In his famous series of lectures, that begin one hour before each performance he conducts, Conlon explained the complexities of Britten’s tonal and harmonic structures, delighting the L. A. audience with an infectious enthusiasm that would seem pedantic if presented by almost any other person.

The Ghost Opera

“Turn of the Screw” is the only opera remotely close to opera’s standard repertory that is based on a ghost story, and its namesake novella by American-born British author Henry James is the most famous literary work designed in the ghost story genre. One senses that both he, Britten, and the librettist colloaborator with Britten, Mrs Myfanwy Piper, were quite content with the idea of a work of art whose story is inexplicable.

It is deliberately designed that no one knows for sure what has happened. My review of the performance in Houston contained the statement that “if you are sure you know what it’s about – whatever you may think – articulate, intelligent students of the work can be found that will explain why you are wrong”.

However, both the novella and the opera deal with children who seem to be sexually aware, a young boy who has been expelled from boarding  school without explanation, two deceased adults who had an obvious but unexplained connection with the two children, and a new governess whose appearance at the place where the children reside seems to disrupt or intensify the relationships between the children and the ghosts. It’s as if James, Piper and Britten are daring us to come to our own conclusions about what is going on.

In 1954, when the opera premiered, Piper and Britten closed one speculative door as to what the ghost story was about. They shared with the audience the information that the ghosts are real, by giving them voices. (A 1930s literary debate had arisen as to whether the ghosts were the result of the Governess’ hysteria, existing only in her imagination.)

But is the opera about physical, perhaps specifically sexual, abuse of children? Is it about sexual seduction by children of adults? Is it about the struggle of society to keep children “innocent” and the controversy among adults about how much children should know? Or is it something else entirely? If you think you know, the team that brought you the story, the libretto, and the opera have denied you the satisfaction of knowing if you are even on the right track. Nor is it likely that there will ever be a satisfactory explanation that will remain constant over time.

The readers at the time of James’ novella thought differently on many subjects than the early audiences for Britten’s work, as the audiences of today differ from those of 57 years ago. A test of a classic is that it can be constantly seen from new perspectives, including some not dreamed of by the creators of such classics.

[Below: the ghost of Miss Jessel (Tamara Wilson, right) communicates with Flora (Ashley Emerson); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph,courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Stage directors and production designers will not wish us to be left totally in the dark, so they will take their stab at explaining what is going on, as best they can. The production being revived in Los Angeles is the famous 2006 Jonathan Kent production for the Glyndebourne (England) Festival, in collaboration with Scenery and Costume Designer Paul Brown and Lighting Designer Mark Henderson.

One would not expect the phrase razzle-dazzle to be used in the review of any production of “Turn of the Screw”. Even if that descriptor is a bit too exuberant for for the staging of this unusual story, Kent’s swift scene changes of the eight scenes in each of the two acts, utilizing turntables, conveyor devices, trapdoors, and a revolving wall of glass windows and doors was remarkable and constantly fascinating.

The Kent production was designed to be contemporary to the opera’s mid-20th century premiere, with upright vacuum cleaners, artificial Christmas trees and large gauge model railroads supplementing the clothing styles of 1954. Currently, when most of us think about that time, whether we are justified or not, we picture it as rather sexually repressed, although hardly a “Victorian” time. Our thoughts about interpersonal relationships in the 1950s, particularly when sexuality is an issue, are sufficiently ambiguous as to make this a fertile field for an imaginative director trying to make sense of the “Screw”.

In the Kent production, revived in Los Angeles by Stage Director Francesca Gilpin, the ghost Peter Quint appears sufficiently corporeal to physically lift the mortal boy Miles on two separate occasions. Those attending the performance will guess at the meanings in Kent’s staging of the opera’s scenes, which includes Miles bathing in a large tub.

The final scene of the opera is one that, no matter how staged, contains its insoluble mystery. Miles cries out to Peter Quint, calls him (or, in the opinions of some, the Governess) “you Devil” and dies, leaving the audience without the explained denouement.

[Below: Peter Quint (William Burden, left) calls for Miles (Michael Kepler Meo, center) as the Governess (Patricia Racette) resists him; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Rising of the Screw

The opera’s fortunes are in the ascendancy. There are  only a paucity of operas from the mid-2oth century that opera managements can mount and expect their audiences to increase over time. The 21st century is anointing Britten’s works with new productions – every one of his 13 operas has been presented in multiple venues in the century’s first decade.

Los Angeles Opera’s mounting of the Glyndebourne production underscores an increasing interest in Britten’s works beyond the two operas which now appear safely to be in the core repertory – “Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd”. The audience for Britten’s works is increasing, which, of course, is because the audiences are becoming familiar with them, which increases the interest of operatic managements to present them.

Even those familiar with the opera and the Kent production will find Los Angeles Opera’s 2011 cast, led by the brilliant conducting of James Conlon, to be an extraordinary experience.

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