Los Angeles Opera Review: THE TURN OF THE SCREW (Pacific Opera Project)

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by Barnaby Hughes on January 15, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

A TURN FOR THE BETTER

A Henry James novella first published in 1898, The Turn of the Screw tells one of the most ambiguous ghost stories ever written. It involves a brother and sister (Flora and Miles), a housekeeper (Mrs. Grose), an unnamed governess, and two ghosts (Peter Quint and Miss Jessel). Not a lot happens in the story. While the Jennifer Wallace, Katy Tang, Marina Boudart Harris, Ariel Downs, Clay Hilley and Rebecca Sjöwall in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.governess gets to know the housekeeper and her two charges, she is haunted by two ghosts. It is said that the ghosts had had a sexual relationship and it is implied that Peter Quint has sexually molested Miles.

James seems to have deliberately given his readers as little information as possible. Too many questions remain unanswered. Why was Miles expelled from school? How did the children’s parents die? Why does their uncle not take a more active role in caring for them? How did Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the former governess, die? Are the ghosts real, or is the governess mad?

Ariel Downs, Katy Tang and Rebecca Sjöwall in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.Knowing all of this, The Turn of the Screw would appear to be an unlikely subject for an opera. And Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation is perhaps an even unlikelier production for a company such as the Pacific Opera Project (POP). Although POP has entered dark territory before (Sweeney Todd), it has generally stuck to light-hearted productions, especially love stories (La BohèmeThe Barber of Seville). This has given artistic director Josh Shaw free reign to showcase his comedic talents through direction, stage and costume design, and subtitle translation. Can he pull off a production without laughs? The answer is an unambiguous yes.

Rebecca Sjöwall, Ariel Downs and Clay Hilley in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.With the help of an abstract and dissonant score, POP takes the title of the opera to heart by enhancing the tension inherent in James’ ghost story. The result is an intensely dark and disturbing production. While the first half of Britten’s opera comes across a tad dully, because it largely consists in setting up the story and contains little action, the second half is truly frightening. As with the best horror movies, the tension is created more by what is implied than by what is revealed, which isn’t to say that the ghosts remain invisible; it means that they stalk and hover. Ryan Shull’s moody lighting design also supports the creepiness.

Rebecca Sjöwall and Ariel Downs in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.In the second act of Britten’s two-act chamber opera, the ghosts of Peter Quint (Clay Hilley) and Miss Jessel (Marina Harris) haunt Miles (Ariel Downs) and Flora (Katy Tang) in nearly every scene and the governess (Rebecca Sjowall) is conflicted between two competing desires: fleeing the house and staying to protect the children. Without soprano Sjowall’s impressive performance, Turn of the Screw would have been a much less compelling production. Her dramatic expression and stunning voice exhibit great beauty and power.

Clay Hilley and Marina Boudart Harris in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.Tenor Hilley and soprano Harris give appropriately understated performances that belie their deathly appearances. It’s a shame that there isn’t more material for Harris, whose minor role barely betrays a hint of her talent. Although the diminutive Ariel Downs certainly looks the part of Miles, her acting is unconvincing and her singing disappointing. She has a sweet voice, but fails to enunciate her words or to project them sufficiently.

The orchestra, led by Stephen Karr, gives perhaps its best performance yet. The score is by no means easy, as it was heavily influenced by the atonality of Arnold Schoenberg. Light on strings, the orchestrations are characterized above all by wind instruments and percussion, including bells, tympani, piano and celesta (there is also a harp). Instead of using the Rosenthal Theater’s stage, Shaw turns the audience to the side and places the orchestra on the upper level behind the actors. This gives the actors some flexibility in entrances and exits, allowing them to come and go via the staircase as well as the wings. Unfortunately, it also makes it difficult to see the actors at times, such as when Miles lies on his bed. Moreover, the “lake effect” is all but invisible to most of the audience.

Jennifer Wallace, Katy Tang, Rebecca Sjöwall and Ariel Downs in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.This production makes a welcome contribution to our city’s celebration of the centenary of Britten’s birth. It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opera’s premiere at Venice’s La Fenice in 1954. James’ haunting tale is no less disturbing now than it was then. Perhaps it is even more so, since we are far more aware of the devastating consequences of child sexual abuse. Notable for its absence of humor, The Turn of the Screw provides plenty of pause for thought, especially given Shaw’s brave and unflinching production of Britten’s operatic oddity.

Ariel Downs in Pacific Opera Project’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Photo by Martha Benedict.photos by Martha Benedict

The Turn of the Screw
Pacific Opera Project at the Rosenthal Theater
Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler St.
scheduled to end January 19, 2014
for tickets, call (323) 739-6122
or visit www.PacificOperaProject.com

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