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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Turn of the Screw
The eighteen-year-old Berkshire Opera Company's first fully staged production in its new home, The Mahaiwe Theatre, is a chamber opera for six singers and a small orchestra. Like the theatre, a one-time vaudeville playhouse turned movie palace and now first class opera house in the making, The Turn of a Screw began as something else; to be specific, a novella by Henry James an author who often visited his friend Edith Wharton in her Berkshires mansion, The Mount.
The Turn of the Screw is a highly theatrical ghost story about a governess who is employed to care for two young children on a country estate. The job comes with the stipulation that she must promise never to contact her employer. This promise becomes harder and harder to keep with the recurring appearances of two ghosts: her fomer predecessor, Miss Jessel, and a valet named Quint, both of whom died suddenly and mysgteriously. Benjamin Britten has transformed the story of the desperate efforts of the new governess to save the children she has come to love, into an opera that, though small in scale, looms large among contemporary chamber operas.
Britten's score beautifully captures the escalating mystery. It begins a prologue which is followed by more than a dozen scenes, each a variation of the musical leitmotif.
The 9/11 financial ripple effect on cultural institutions has forced Berkshire Opera Company to pursue its ambitious plans at a slower and more economy minded pace which is evident in this production. While it features a first-rate director and creative team, this is probably one of the sparest stagings of any BOC opera I've seen. Riccardo Hernández has provided some forest-like panels to suggest the isolation of the estate but the backdrop is the Mahaiwee's brick wall. Still, with Scott Zielinski's moody lighting and a few simple props, it works. The real bells and whistles of this production is supplied by the superb singers and the orchestra (which, since the pit is yet to be dug out, is well positioned at front of the stage.
Tenor Carl Halvorson, sings the Prologue from one of the boxes at the side of the stage (an effective directorial touch, repeated for one of the "ghost" solos. He also does a fine job in the role of the scary Quint.
Soprano Jennifer Aylmer is in superb voice as the Governess, as is mezzo Mary Ann McCormick as her only confidante, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Soprano Ilana Davidson makes you forget that she's obviously a long way from twelve, the age of one of the less ghost-haunted of the two children. Treble Trevor Kaplan-Newman, who really is just eleven years old, is quite remarkable as the doomed Miles. That leaves soprano Elizabeth Shammash as the story's second ghost-- and she fully matches Halvorson's Quint in presence and voice.
While most English sung operas tend to need supertitles as much as those in a foreign language, the voices at the Mahaiwee resonated clearly enough so that you'll find yourself glancing at the overhead screen only occasionally. While the rise and fall of the curtain between each scene tended to be distracting, this was soon forgotten since Britten's intra-scene orchestral music is a joy to listen to, especially as played by the 13-member, 18-instrument playing orchestra under Maestro Joel Revsen's leadership.
A consumer note: The sound and sightlines are excellent whether you sit in the balcony or the orchestra, but the main level is cooler. Wherever you sit, the company has thoughtfully provided imprinted fans to keep you comfortable and take home as a souvenir of an enjoyable evening.
LINKS OF INTEREST
Turn of the Screw, an unusual theatrical adaptation for 2 actors
Harlem Song a new musical designed by Riccardo Hernández
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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