A Twisted Tale 

Britten's "Turn of the Screw" a twisted delight

Britten's "Turn of the Screw" a twisted delight

Last fall, the Nashville Opera staged a sort of Super Bowl-halftime-show production of Verdi’s Aïda, one of the grandest of grand operas. Aïda is an emblem of what most of us think opera is—a grand spectacle with lavish costumes and sets and props, great big people with great big voices singing sometimes marvelous songs. This kind of opera, flaunting its artifice, can be a thrilling experience. Indeed, its fans are as loyal as fans of the NFL.

But there is a second kind of opera too—a ”music drama,“ funny or serious, in which instruments and voices work together throughout to build a sustained fable. Richard Wagner gets credit for the idea, but Mozart understood it too. And so did Benjamin Britten. Britten wrote 16 operas, some big and richly textured—Peter Grimes, for instance, his biggest success. But maybe his best opera is Turn of the Screw, a ”chamber opera“ that the Nashville Opera Association is staging this Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Polk Theater. Even a tolerable performance would be worth seeing, but rehearsals promise this one will be an experience not to be missed.

The source of the opera is Henry James’ 1898 novella, a subtle, complex, intensely psychological tale. The gist of the story is simple, a kind of adult Hansel-and-Gretel fable—except this time Hansel is Gretel, and Gretel loses. Sometime in 19th-century England, an attractive young woman is hired by a handsome, wealthy man living in London. She is to be governess of his niece and nephew, and she is to live with the children on a grand estate in Sussex in nearly total isolation. Besides the children, she has only one companion, the housekeeper—a kind woman, but not a rocket scientist. The man has in effect dumped the children on the governess. She is not to bother him with anything, but to make all decisions herself. Materially, her world is comfortable and secure. But emotionally, things right away go from bad to worse, and end in catastrophe.

What is wrong is never entirely clear. But whatever it is, it is mostly in the young woman’s heart and mind. She took the job only because she found her employer a handsome and charming man who ”needed“ her to help him; but her life on the estate turns out to be a dead end. The odds of her finding any man, or of otherwise escaping her isolation, are basically none. Before long, in her desperation, she’s trying blindly to ”save“ her young charges from a seductive ”evil“ that is at least partly a projection of her own isolation and despair.

Britten calls this a ”chamber opera.“ It is scored for only seven voices and a 13-member orchestra consisting of a string quartet plus double bass, harp, winds, percussion, and piano. The cast assembled for this production is well-nigh perfect. All, including Evan Broder, the remarkable 9-year-old boy soprano, are experienced performers.

Stacy Rigg, who performed here a few years ago in The Magic Flute, returns to Nashville to sing the governess. She is a passionate stage presence, projecting her character with a strong, expressive, disciplined voice. Watching Rigg play an attractive, vibrant woman trapped in celibacy is unsettling. We understand why the governess would be vulnerable to the charm of her employer, whom we never see. But soon her frustrations are channeled into the figure of Peter Quint, the estate’s former valet, now dead from a violent accident, who appears to her as an apparition.

As sung by Marc Shreiner, a handsome Texas tenor, Quint is about six-and-a-half feet of lithe phallic force, serpentine in the woman’s dreams. According to the governess’s increasingly complex fantasies, Quint was the illicit lover of her predecessor, Miss Jessell, now also dead—and now also an apparition. Nashvillian Marcia Jones portrays the ghost of Miss Jessell as a frustrated, intense female presence. Seduced and abandoned by Peter Quint, she is now emotionally stalking the young girl, Flora, as Quint stalks the boy, Miles. The atmosphere reeks of brimstone, burning in the governess’s head.

Patti Thomas sings Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, as an earthy, peasant woman, who sees Quint’s vile influence continuing even though he is dead. For her, it is perfectly natural that the governess should have seen the apparition. But most noteworthy, maybe, are the children’s roles. At first sight, Teri Ann Johnson, from Memphis, looks too old to be Flora. And the music Britten has written for her is pretty sophisticated stuff, at odds with her childlike behavior—until we see that Britten knew what he was doing. Flora is indeed older than she acts. Her development in this isolated place has been arrested—she is a child in a woman’s body. On the other hand, Broder’s Miles sings music that sounds childlike, yet the words he sings should be coming out of a mature man’s mouth—his guardian’s, perhaps. And that makes the governess’s increasingly intense love for the boy not a little unsettling.

The singing is first-rate; the acting is first-rate. The set is a minimalist dreamscape, artfully appropriate, expressive, and versatile, enabling efficient changes of scene. John Hoomes’ direction is perceptive, imaginative, and effective. There are many deft touches. Maybe the most important is when the governess, asleep during a musical interlude, is visited by Quint, acting out lubriciously what we must imagine she is dreaming. And Stacy Rigg, when she arises, shows, without speaking or singing, how deeply the dream has disturbed her character. It is a defining moment in the opera.

Britten’s music, very different from Verdi’s, seems the perfect vehicle for this fable. He writes for the voice as well as anybody, shaping melodies and rhythms to emulate the patterns of spoken English intonation. Like Mozart’s, his duets and trios and quartets are complex dramatic events.

The orchestra’s secure interpretation of the music is subtly responsive to Karen Lynn Deal’s acute and sensitive baton. The players aren’t simply providing accompaniment—the instrumental substance is married with the vocal to embody the power, tension, and ambiguity of the energies at war within this woman’s soul. Britten’s subtle and varied use of dissonance most notably uses the grinds of two notes side by side—a C in one voice, say, against a D or D-flat in another. And so the screw turns. When, at the end, the governess weeps over the dead body of little Miles, the music combines a soft, sweet harp with softly rattling timpani in a march-like ironic dirge.

Britten’s opera is a masterful translation of his source. That subtlety and complexity may be the major difference between this kind of opera and Verdi’s kind. In Aïda, an archetypal love triangle gives rise to occasions for thrilling, expressive song. Indeed, some listeners who love the arias don’t want to sit through the stuff that separates them. In Turn of the Screw, there are no arias in this sense. The two acts are two panels of a unified diptych, and the power of the overall design leads us to listen, captivated, for textural subtleties, and ask what they may mean. Every twist is functional.

This production of Turn of the Screw—even in the Polk Theater—offers a rare and wonderful chance for a rare and wonderful experience. Don’t miss it.

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