Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Boston Lyric Opera breaks out

The sacred meets the profane in The Turn of the Screw. Photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

It was nice to see that with The Turn of the Screw, local critics have once again caught up with me (sorry for the self-congratulation, Bill!). About a year and a half ago I began raving about Boston Lyric Opera, and let's just say I was met with polite disdain - one critic actually snickered at my enthusiasm; didn't I realize how out of step I was? Now, of course, everyone thinks BLO is brilliant - one reviewer has even said their transition began "about two years ago!" Oh, well. This whole process moved faster for BLO than it did for the Boston Ballet, so maybe that's progress!

But back to The Turn of the Screw, which proved deeply satisfying both musically and intellectually. The work is putatively sourced, of course, in the famous Henry James novella, which cleverly hinges on the question of whether a pair of sexually-charged ghosts haunting a governess's charges are, in fact, "real," or just products of her own repressed psychology. Composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper gave the screw an extra twist, however, by nearly-explicitly linking the material to Britten's own life and issues, and BLO seemed unafraid to let this very loaded scenario unfold onstage.

Britten, of course, was a (semi-) closeted gay composer who notoriously surrounded himself with boys, both on-stage and off. From Peter Grimes to Death in Venice, every single Britten opera pivots on a young boy (all in all, he wrote them into some 30 works), and Britten spent his life - which he shared with tenor Peter Pears - perennially involved professionally and psychologically with one young man after another. Boston's own Benjamin Zander was one Britten protégé, as was the movie actor David Hemmings (who originated the role of Miles in Turn of the Screw).

All this only sets Britten squarely in a long line of artists obsessed with very young men or women in a troubling way (Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dodgson and J.M. Barrie come immediately to mind, not to mention Michael Jackson, Bill Wyman and Roman Polanski!). But before we actually make that leap to the likes of Roman Polanski, we have to remember that even though it's undeniable Britten was possessed by an infantile psycho-sexual complex, none of "Britten's boys" ever accused him of abuse (his adult lover Pears, it seems, operated as a kind of chaperone). When librettist Eric Crozier fell out with Britten, in fact, it was over his emotional, not sexual, connection to the boys. And indeed, the composer's history was one of sometimes abruptly dropping his young charges once their voices broke, or some other even purer boy soprano appeared on the scene - which was psychologically crushing to his former favorites. So it's not a pretty picture, even if it was a perversely chaste one.

And somewhere Britten knew that - at least based on the evidence of The Turn of the Screw. For he and Piper all but drop the crux of the novella - whether or not "Miss Giddens" is "imagining things." In the James original, we never leave the governess's perspective, and only see the ghosts from her P.O.V.; in Britten, the ghosts have their own, individual scenes with the kids - and even a long scene by themselves. They're real all right. And BLO stage director Sam Helfrich took this new twist and ran with it all the way to the basement of the Park Plaza Castle (BLO's temporary digs for this production), where his Quint and Miss Jessel hung out in utterly quotidian dishabille, smoking cigarettes and lazing on a four-poster. We knew this was happening beneath us because the images of these almost too-too-solid lovers were beamed onto large video screens before us (see above), so that we were watching both the opera's text and subtext simultaneously.

This troubled many critics, but I don't think they were being too perceptive. It's true that Helfrich's gambit undercut the spookiness of the Park-Plaza-Castle setting, and robbed the ghosts of the eerie glamour they enjoyed in such sophisticated entertainments as The Innocents (at left), Jack Clayton's brilliant film version of the story. But it matched precisely Britten's intent: to give a dislocated sense of double meaning to everything in the opera. Indeed, this may be the most inspired example of what Wagner called gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork," I've ever seen: the staging precisely mirrored not just the dramatic idea of the piece, but its musical idea as well.

Why is this so? Because Britten's score floats between two worlds, too. The composer opens The Turn of the Screw with what sounds like a standard Schoenberg-style tone row, but configured so that its permutations remain tonal throughout the opera - in fact, they float between two keys (A minor and A-flat major, according to Bettina Norton and Michael Kennedy). So as you can see, there's a whole lotta duality goin' on, which is why the combined video-and-live-action effects were so weirdly resonant.

What gives an added horrific sheen to the proceedings is that what shards of actual melody Britten gives us are often based on children's songs, or what sounds like sacred chant; the final effect is of dislocated sacred music cast over utterly profane action, through which James's tormented governess floats helplessly, like a disembodied conscience. Is it too much to map this weirdly contradictory atmosphere to Britten's own situation? Not when the ghosts seem more interested in young Flora and Miles than each other, I'd argue, and when the tenor, Vale Rideout, not only sounds but even looks a bit like Peter Pears. Thus it was hard not to read this Turn of the Screw as not so much an adaptation of James as an evocation of the Britten/Pears environment - devoted to sacred innocence, but underpinned by a sexuality only just kept in check; onstage we may have been watching two little children singing with aching purity - but behind them we could also make out two corresponding slatterns making love on a bed.

It's frankly hard to imagine any local theatre company (particularly the gay ones!) making a statement this sophisticated about a situation so politically and morally fraught; that alone made The Turn of the Screw memorable as an occasion of truly adult theatre. That the evening was also gloriously sung, and ably played, was to me the icing on the cake. Soprano Emily Pulley, a regular at the Met, proved scarier in her intensity than any of the supernatural forces she battled, and came apart utterly convincingly, even while deploying a flexible soprano of both richness and power. Meanwhile veteran mezzo Joyce Castle (at left, with Pulley), who is celebrating 40 years on the operatic stage, provided a sturdily sympathetic Mrs. Grose. As Quint, Rideout was vocally almost eerily appropriate, as noted, and bravely edged toward a sense of perversity that seemed malevolent yet oddly vulnerable. There was less to do for Miss Jessel, but Rebecca Nash, making her American debut after a series of raves in Europe, revealed a commanding soprano that justified the hype. Young Flora was played by the adult Kathryn Skemp, who was nevertheless physically and emotionally quite convincing as a young girl; alas, at times her trained soprano sometimes overwhelmed Miles, but generally one could feel her keeping in appropriate balance. On the night I attended, I caught the self-possessed Ryan Williams as the possessed little boy, exuding a confidence which made his piping treble all the more poignant. In the "pit," as it were (the orchestra was visible throughout - another good idea), Andrew Bisantz conducted sensitively and with a strong sense of drama.

Overall this was a triumph in just about every way, and gave some idea of what Boston Lyric Opera, with the greatest resources of any opera company in the city, can do with sophisticated repertory. The wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos is next, and something tells me tickets are already going fast.


  1. I guess I should have gone...

    At least I've got a ticket for Ariadne next. They have a strong cast for that as well.

  2. It's actually a very strong cast, and the conductor, Erik Nielsen, is a rising star. (You can see Rachele Gilmore, their Zerbinetta, on Youtube btw.)

  3. Yes, I saw the YouTube clip via BLO's website. And Brandon Jovanovich got a good review as Don Jose currently at the Met.

    I'm also looking forward to Madame White Snake as well!