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Turn of the Screw: What Goes on in Your Dreams?

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?

Divided loyalties: Miles, the Governess, and Peter Quint in NYCO's Turn of the Screw (Photo (c) Richard Termine)

On a cold and rainy night in New York City, an audience "subject to a common thrill," as Henry James put it, gathered at BAM for The Turn of the Screw, Britten's deliciously uncanny twist on James' tale of self-doubt, self-discovery, and the supernatural. Sam Buntrock's production is set in 1982, with the Falklands War on the BBC, and the Governess' haircut modeled after that of Princess Diana. The guardian of the children, glimpsed during the prologue, is a Gordon Gekko avant la lettre, with a sleek desk and a ruthlessly crisp manner. Among other things, this choice refocuses the opera's questioning of gender and gender roles on the artificial masculine/feminine divide. Flora is reprimanded by Mrs. Grose for bowing instead of curtsying; she's flustered; it's Miles, debonair and confident, who models the perfect curtsy for his younger sister. The Governess is sheltered, even willfully persistent in her sheltered outlook when confronted with things beyond her ken. She insists that what she sees must fit into her moral categories, with, of course, disastrous results.
If the production had had less happening, I thought, it would have been easier to focus on the essentials of what it was about. Intelligent and nuanced in detail (how does the Iron Lady on the BBC affect this anxious socialization of appropriate femininity and masculinity?) it contained some ghostly gimmicks which I found distracting. If Peter Quint represents repressed (bisexual?) desire, there's no need for his presence to make the lights flicker and the TV go dark. Aside from these tropes of supernatural haunting, there's nothing to suggest that Quint is a tortured soul; rather, he seems the most self-assured character of the piece. Though Quint himself is not troubled, the Governess is, deeply. Miss Jessel was. Miles, by contrast, though disturbed and frightened by Quint, is also his ally, also the singer of his song. This unsettled, unsettling openness contrasts with the insistence of the others that Quint's ways are other and incomprehensible. In Miss Jessel's address to Flora, in Mrs. Grose's outcry, there are repeated assertions that men and women cannot, must not, should not communicate in the same ways. And this is part of what thwarts the Governess: Miles is (almost) a man; he can often seem it in his preternatural self-possession and suave, even challenging maturity. So how must she treat him? As a child? Or as the always-already sexualized, dangerous Other, the male? Miles' hesitant attempts--sometimes fearful, sometimes precociously confident--to reconcile this perceived dichotomy end in frustration, and the tragedy of a forfeited future.
With Jayce Ogren conducting, the orchestra did a fine job of evoking the hesitation, fear, and excitement felt by the Governess, and the uncanny stirrings of life and thought which she encounters at The strings were a little muddy at times, but the woodwinds shone together and apart, and dramatic tension was maintained throughout. I could have wished for a little more subtlety in handling Britten's uncanny repetitions and escalations, but this is a quibble. Sharmay Musaccio was a fine, suitably fussy Mrs. Grose, Jennifer Goode Cooper a malevolent Miss Jessel, sharp twists of anguish and malice in her dark mezzo. Lauren Worsham's Flora was docile as she was expected to be, with consistently sweet-toned singing; there was little suggestion of what Flora might think about the powers struggling for her allegiance. (Indeed, as the second act develops, the priorities of Miss Jessel and the Governess becoming increasingly indistinct.) As Peter Quint, Dominic Armstrong was suave, made sinister by circumstance, hissing secret desires in everyone's ears with the impatient rage of a Cassandra. He used his strong, sinewy tenor to haunting (if you'll excuse the word) effect, shaping text and melody to express contempt for those deaf to the terrible sound of the white swan's wing. With Miles he could be peremptory as well as tender: for both of them, Quint suggests, this is a last chance. As Miles, Benjamin Wenzelberg gave a performance both musically and dramatically compelling. He sang with a strong treble which could be pert or plaintive, and he could change in an instant from vulnerable to manipulative. His "Malo, malo" came across as a half-unwilling confession, one of many moments in which he waits in vain for understanding from the fatally obtuse Governess. Sara Jakubiak did a remarkable job of suggesting the Governess' sense of fraying control over events while maintaining complete vocal security. With a strong, plangent soprano, she gave rich expression to doubts, only to return, at last, to deadly certainties.
Production photos (copyright Richard Termine/New York City Opera):
Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?
Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?

Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?

Turn of the Screw: What goes on in your dreams?

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