Review: City Opera's Turn of the Screw Missing Spooky Thrills

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Benjamin Britten’s famously spooky 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw arrives in a New York City Opera production determined to be as ungothic as possible, unfolding in a modern suburban-looking rec room – no murky Wuthering Heights weather here – identifiably British mainly because Margaret Thatcher is seen on TV and the cast sings accented English.

This is Henry James’ venerable ghost story? Well, evil can still be creepy in outwardly benign packages. But what about mundane ones? Britten was known to say that performers need only do exactly as the score says and the opera itself will take care of the rest. And City Opera has indeed followed that advice with an extremely high level of musical preparation in a predominately quiet, closely-packed score. But The Turn of the Screw may be the exception to Britten’s rule. For all its musical clarity Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the opera failed to take possession (at least of me) in a way that it truly can.

With its plot about a governess who walks into a remote estate to find a pair of children being controlled by the ghosts of servants past, the opera has pedophilic overtones, between the aggressive spirit of Peter Quint (a sexual omnivore in real life) and the young (still living) boy Miles. Biographers indicate the composer wrestled with his own obsession with adolescent boys, the result being an opera that seems to speak from behind a veil. Taken strictly as a ghost story, inner-coherence problems abound (the ghosts get away with everything) in what is really a retelling of the German Erlking myth, about a spirit who claims children’s souls for the sake of it.

The Sam Buntrock production (designed by David Farley) has a skeletal house with disembodied stairs and windows, a main room with a sofa, bean-bag chair and lots of suspended lights that rise, fall and blink. But there's nothing close to the theatrical wizardry of his London production of Sunday in the Park with George and that has nothing to do with the obviously limited production budget.

A more modestly scaled Central City Opera production in Colorado last summer left my stomach in knots thanks to conductor Steuart Bedford, a longtime Britten specialist who showed that the key to the piece’s viability lies in the orchestra pit. City Opera’s Jayce Ogren had everything in the right place, but potentially ominous bass writing had little impact, and the dramatic contour had little sense of interrupted normality. Scenes passed with no great sense of incident.

The burden of the opera fell on the singers, and that’s asking a lot. Sara Jakubiak’s Governess wore her English accent self-consciously but brought unusual vocal beauty to the role, downplaying the character’s nascent neurosis. She was Everywoman coping with bizarre circumstances. As Peter Quint, Dominic Armstrong often seemed to channel the role’s original tenor, Peter Pears, minus the palpable malevolence. Benjamin P. Wenzelberg sang the boy Miles with the assurance of a seasoned adult, and if that didn’t always seem the case with Lauren Worsham, who played his sister, it’s perhaps because her character seemed mildly autistic (an interesting interpretive choice).

In effect, the cast was able to deliver 60 to 70 percent of the opera’s potential in any given scene. That’s still a fair amount of opera – for those who know Britten and what they’re in for. But it’s not the Screw of my nightmares.

Photo of Sara Jakubiak by Richard Termine