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The Devil is in the Details

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
01/29/2010 -  and Jan 31, Feb 6, 10, 13, 2010
Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54
Andrew Kennedy (Prologue/Peter Quint), Amanda Roocroft (Governess), Joëlle Harvey (Flora), Michael Kepler Meo (Miles), Judith Forst (Mrs. Grose), Tamara Wilson (Miss Jessel)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Neil Armfield (director), Stephen Curtis (set and costume designer), Nigel Levings (lighting designer)

J. Harvey and A. Roocroft (© Felix Sanchez)

The Turn of the Screw, Britten's intimate, multi-layered masterpiece of chamber opera, stands in stark contrast to Houston Grand Opera's concurrent production of that most dramatic, slick and sensational melodrama, Puccini's Tosca. The mystery of the Britten stems first and foremost from the Henry James novella, expertly transfigured by Myfanwy Piper into the most successful libretto he would ever work with. The text's labyrinthine wordplay is folded into Britten's most rigidly structured music, and the opera somehow is his most psychologically riveting, the composer limning an impossible variety of moods into the score. The six singers and 14 instrumentalists are naked and vulnerable throughout, making this is a daunting opera to produce, there is nowhere for anybody to hide. Perfection in its overall execution may be a utopian vision, but HGO continues its exacting standards in this third outing of its ongoing Benjamin Britten series.

Neil Armfield once again directs, and the excellence of his Billy Budd and A Midsummer Night's Dream is sustained. Stephen Curtis and Nigel Levings have created a chilling atmosphere onstage, with a set of modular, mirrored pieces that are moved during the instrumental variations between each scene. The mirrors are a simple yet brilliant stroke of staging, reflecting multiple sides of each singer's face, and, as they are rearranged, creating an eerie play of lights and images, including unexpected flashes of patrons, exit signs and video monitors from the auditorium. The reflections make up for a lack of vertical dimension in the set, a perspective so intrinsic in James' original story. There is not much chiaroscuro in the visual aspect, the focus being almost entirely on darkness. Even the lake scenes are shrouded in shadows, the water symbolized by crimson red fabric, playing menacingly upon Flora's obsession with the Dead Sea.

By the time he composed The Turn of the Screw, Britten had come to know each and every musician he would be composing for intimately. The work was specifically crafted not only for the singers, but for each and every member of the chamber orchestra. The individuality of the voices of the original cast can be heard on Britten's recording of the work, and this aspect certainly makes casting the opera extremely difficult.

The cast assembled for HGO's production is extremely good, some even great. Amanda Roocroft, making her HGO debut, is a very strong, present Governess. She has a large voice, gorgeous in the lower register, and excellent rhythmic accuracy, making passages such as her soliloquy at the end the second act's first scene extremely exciting. Her diction in higher-lying passages is often unclear, forcing one to rely too heavily on the supertitles at times, but her convincing acting draws one's attention back to the stage. She is radiant in the opening of Act 1, Scene 4 ('The Tower'), making a gorgeous sound and looking truly spellbound by the beauty of her surroundings.

Andrew Kennedy, who made a superb impression as Captain Vere in HGO's 2008 Billy Budd, also sings extremely well here. The solidness of his tone is perhaps better suited to the confident, steady and benevolent Vere, since creepy idiosyncrasies are exactly what make the best singers of Peter Quint stand out. Peter Pears' rendition, for instance, has a sinister, supernatural transparency that makes it memorably disturbing, while Kennedy's Quint, despite being technically effortless, didn't sound consistently otherworldly. There were moments that were hair-raising, such as Act II, Scene 5 ('Quint'), where his control of Miles is at its most explicit. Here, Kennedy achieved a wonderful range of color and articulation, making the sudden changes between lyricism and patter aptly unnerving.

Tamara Wilson is haunting as Miss Jessel. Her voice is strong, and she is perfectly spiteful in her interaction with Quint at the beginning of Act II. One wishes she had more to sing in this role. Judith Forst's large mezzo voice is well-suited to Mrs. Grose's matronly nature, and she is a great match for Roocroft's Governess, blending and supporting wonderfully in their first act duets.

Joëlle Harvey's Flora stands out, not only for her excellent, flexible, and appropriately girlish voice, but for her arresting acting, with stature and facial expressions matching her character's changing situations to a T. Her portrayal is adroitly aimed towards her pivotal scene (Act II, Scene 7 - 'Flora'), where her unstable psyche is rendered with spine-tingling realism. Harvey is well-matched by Michael Kepler Meo's Miles. If his most memorable moment is his perfect miming of the virtuosic piano figures in Act II, Scene 6, this is not to downplay the rest of his performance, especially his impeccable pitch. Emotionally and vocally, the role is a substantial undertaking for a boy, and Meo is convincing and secure throughout.

The chamber orchestra is first-rate in a score requiring constant focus and technical exactitude. The wind quintet, in particular, is spot-on, each member playing with flawless technique in their numerous solos that are of equal importance as the lighting, sets and costumes in creating the opera's moods. Bethany Self deserves special mention for her excellence on piano and celesta, two instruments that are intrinsic to the special color of the opera. Patrick Summers' essay in the program is as probing as his interpretation, and his confident conducting is a secure foundation for all the performers involved.

Any flaws in this production are easily overlooked, and even heighten the sense of helpless inevitability that makes the story so unsettling. This is yet another triumph in HGO's repertoire, and the unfaltering care being given to the Britten series makes one confident that it will continue to be a highlight of upcoming seasons.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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