Despite a worthy effort, PB Opera can’t quite deliver a convincing turn for Britten opera

By Lawrence Budmen

Sidney O’Gorman and Bonnie Sherman Brown in Palm Beach Opera’s production of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” performed Friday night in Boca Raton.

Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw is one of the twentieth century’s operatic masterpieces. Writing for a  thirteen-piece orchestra and six-member cast, Britten imbued this ghost story with a taut dramatic structure and haunting, concise musical framework that veers between expansive lyricism and atonality.

This moody, dark work demands a top notch cast of singing actors, a sensitive conductor attuned to Britten’s idiom and a theatrically vivid production. Despite a strong effort by all involved, the collaborative presentation by Palm Beach Opera and the Lynn University Conservatory of Music offered only a pallid copy of this singular music drama.

A large, highly attentive audience filled the Wold Performing Arts Center at the university’s Boca Raton campus for the opening performance Friday night. The modern, multipurpose auditorium has unobstructed sight lines and a clear, resonant acoustic but sound from the orchestra pit has less impact, with instrumental textures lacking definition.

Hardy’s tale of a young governess hired by a mysterious guardian to tend to two children at a remote estate is replete with macabre and sensual overtones. Dark secrets about a former valet and governess seem to lurk everywhere, particularly in the children’s souls. The dramatic tension builds as the governess attempts to save the boy Miles from the ghost that has possessed him, succeeding only at the expense of his death.

In this low-budget production, Erik Paulson’s set consisted mainly of a series of curtains that move around in different formations. The estate and its gardens and lake, all crucial to the drama, are hardly even suggested by this spare setting. Small pieces of furniture are moved by costumed supernumeraries to suggest various rooms in the manor house and stylish, period costumes from the Utah opera provided some atmosphere.

Director Doug Scholz-Carlson paces the action swiftly and fluidly, and the confrontation scenes between the children and governess had the requisite tension. Herman Montero’s oversized projections of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel provided some of the drama’s most effective moments, achieving a cinematic aura of horror and dread.

The well-rehearsed student musicians assayed Britten’s atmospheric score with precision and confidence. Despite the fuzzy acoustics,  repeated eerie tones of the celeste and elegant, gliding piano lines potently underpinned the drama. The harp solos were particularly effective, gorgeous and polished but fraught with underlying tension. Much of the magic of Britten’s superb instrumental writing was undercut, however, by Greg Ritchey’s blunt conducting. Too often fast and harsh, Ritchey’s reading was inattentive to Britten’s orchestral subtleties, the blending of timbres not always felicitous.

The cast comprised members of Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artist Program. Well trained singers with major conservatory credits, they coped with the complexities of Britten’s vocal writing with varying degrees of success.

Bonnie Sherman Brown’s Governess was nervous and agitated from the start, her fear and despair seemingly ingrained rather than building through the drama. Brown’s harsh top wavered uncomfortably in the upper reaches of Britten’s scoring. She improved considerably in the later scenes and was particularly effective at the conclusion as Miles died in her arms. Brown powerfully embodied the innocent governess’ grief as she intoned the child’s strange song “Malo..naughty child” with beauty and simplicity.

Kyle Erdos-Knapp gave a standout performance as the Prologue and Peter Quint. Properly scary and ominous, Erdos-Knapp projected the ghost’s soaring recitative in a finely burnished lyric tenor, his timbre reminiscent of Peter Pears, the role’s original creator and Britten’s longtime partner and muse.

Megan Marino was a superb Mrs. Grose, the estate’s housekeeper. Her strong, lustrous mezzo and theatricality are the production’s fulcrum.

One of the evening’s most memorable dramatic moments occurred when Marino repeated  “Is there no end to his wicked ways?,” powerfully encompassing Quint’s evil spell on the children and estate. As the ghost of the former governess Miss Jessel, Shirin Eskandani brings glamour and a lovely lyric soprano. Her scenes with Erdos-Knapp were riveting, their repetition of the lines “the ceremony of innocence is doomed” chilling. Eskandani may one day be a fine Governess, her voice easily encompassing Britten’s wide leaps and curves.

In the role of the child Miles originated by the distinguished British actor and director David Hemmings, Sidney O’Gorman ably conjures innocence, confusion and demonic possession, singing in a high, perfectly pitched boy soprano.  Despite an attractive light soprano, Alexandra Batsios is a bland Flora, the child’s confusion and bitterness insufficiently realized.

Despite the production’s flaws, Palm Beach Opera and the Lynn music department deserve credit for presenting Britten’s masterpiece in a well rehearsed, thoughtfully conceived production. This may be the last chance to hear this arresting score in South Florida for some time to come.

Palm Beach Opera repeats The Turn of the Screw 4 p.m. Sunday at Lynn University’s Wold Performing Arts Center in Boca Raton. 561-833-7888;

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat Apr 13, 2013
at 3:36 pm
No Comments