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Seen and Heard International Opera Review



Britten: The Turn of the Screw Seattle Young Artists Program, soloists, cond. Dean Williamson, dir. Peter Kazaras; Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue, WA, 2.4.2006 (BJ)


Questions are always more interesting than answers. So let me start by posing just a few of the many brought to mind by this brilliant presentation of what might well be regarded–the strong claims of Peter Grimes and A Midsummer Night’s Dream notwithstanding–as Benjamin Britten’s greatest opera.

Does the casting of an adult male soprano (the vocally and dramatically gifted David Korn) instead of a younger boy materially change the atmosphere and portent of the story? Within and beyond the broader aspect of atmosphere, is there a certain incongruity in the Governess’s addressing someone a head taller than herself as “dear little Miles”? I recall a production of another Britten opera, The Rape of Lucretia, in which the updating of the plot had the result that characters dressed in modern military uniforms talked about their swords while brandishing pistols. All right: I acknowledge that it may be picayune even to entertain so mundane a concern. Certainly, Giorgio Strehler’s superb La Scala production of Don Giovanni in the 1980s achieved some of its finest moments by eschewing mere literalism: the usual awkwardness, in Deh vieni alla finestra, when the Don pretends to be strumming a mandolin while trying to concentrate on singing, was avoided by not giving him an instrument at all; and later, when the statue of the Commendatore, towering several feet above Giovanni’s head, seized his proffered hand in its icy grip, the fact that there was still a sizeable space between the two hands added enormously to the imaginative effect. Perhaps in this case, then, I have answered my own question–but I hope you agree that asking the question is a productive exercise in itself.

To turn to higher levels of concern: What, precisely, is the portent of this dark-hued chamber opera, and of the archly ambiguous Henry James ghost story it is based on? What form after all–and it may be naïve of me, but I have always wondered this–is the “evil” supposed to take that, as we are frequently led to believe, Quint and Miss Jessel are inculcating into the children? James himself takes great care not to be specific on the matter–indeed, on any matter: the original text rates high on even his habitually exalted scale of ambivalence and indirectness. And reading his preface is, in this regard, no help, serving rather to camouflage the very notion of evil under its frequent recourse to such words as “charming,” “amusing,” and “beautiful.” As T.J. Lustig pithily puts it, in his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the story, James, “both in the tale and in his evasive comments about it, neither provides nor claims to possess the supreme key to meaning. A ghost behind the ghosts, he establishes his mastery by disappearing from the scene, leaving in his wake eddies of unfixable significance.”

On which side, in reality (the reality of this superficially unreal story), does the “evil” lie? Is it with the ghosts? Or is it–or is some kind of madness–to be found rather in the extraordinarily involuted character of the Governess, whose narration surely raises serious doubts about her own mental balance and sense of proportion, and who may well stand as a symbol of classic Victorian sexual repression? How we approach this crucial question is bound up with how, very specifically, we hear Miles’s desperate utterance just before his death, “Peter Quint, you devil!” Is it Quint he is calling “devil,” or the Governess?

Peter Kazaras’s production offered magical proof that the unreality of the story is indeed only superficial. Henry James was as searching a psychologist as his brother William, and under color of a “charming” and “amusing” narration he presents us here with pregnant truths about human beings. Yet the truths are never ironclad–the questions are never definitively answered. And one of the finest things about Kazaras’s direction was its scrupulousness in preserving the many levels of ambiguity that give story and opera alike their fascination. Confirming his sense of this responsibility, moreover, in an absorbing post-performance discussion, the tenor-turned-director displayed at once an articulate intelligence and a modesty in the face of his material that made his recent appointment as artistic director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program very clearly a matter for celebration.

It remains to congratulate that program on a production worthy in every way to be ranked alongside the senior company’s own accomplished work. Enhanced by Connie Yun’s effective lighting design and Cynthia Savage’s neat costumes, Donald Eastman’s simple set met every demand made on it by the plot, and rendered especially vivid the contrast between the children’s constant opening of doors and windows and the Governess’s obsessive urge to close them. Under conductor Dean Williamson’s purposeful and skillfully paced leadership, an orchestra drawn from the ranks of the Auburn Symphony played splendidly. Aside from David Korn, who, remarkably, was Miles for all six performances within ten days, the production used two alternating casts, and the one I saw was uniformly excellent. Wesley Rogers, a chilling Quint, also delivered the introductory narration with exemplary firmness of tone and diction. Robyn Driedger-Klassen was totally believable and touchingly vulnerable as the Governess. Teresa S. Herold injected just the right note of prosaic daylight as the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. And Maureen McKay’s deceptively innocent Flora and Sarah Heltzel’s dangerous Miss Jessel fitted seamlessly into the dramatic and musical whole.

Bernard Jacobson




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