University Opera Staging “Unanswers” All the Right Questions

Performance of Turn of the Screw evocatively staged


Bet you didn’t know that University Opera has a thing or two on Los Angeles Opera…

Ok, forgive me a little hyperbole, but in the case of the production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, there is some truth to it. It’s been at least 25 years since I saw an LA Opera mounting of the work, and they made two critical mistakes that doomed the enterprise from the start: It was presented in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (think the size of Overture Hall—one-and-a-half times larger!), and they failed to use supertitles. Yes, the Myfawnwy Piper libretto is in English, but at least one-third of that early 1990s audience walked out at intermission, because they had no idea who was seeing and saying what about the ghosts which might have been there, etc. Moreover, the work is scored for 13 players and employs only six characters. We need to feel like we’re immersed in the increasingly uneasy confines of the Bly estate.

Friday night, director David Ronis and his cast and crew did indeed draw us in to this uncomfortable environment, originally of author Henry James’ creation. Of course one of the criticisms of the Britten/Piper approach vis-à-vis James is that the former make the ghosts all too real. Well, it’s an opera; Piper gives them words to sing, and Britten (pictured above, credit Hans Wild) gives them eerie and often anguished music that creates a uniquely unsettling experience.

Much of the overall success of the show begins with decisions by Ronis (and executed by costume designers Syndey Krieger and Hyewon Park) to resist all temptation to make the specters of Quint (former valet of Bly’s master, who is far removed from the action of the story) and former governess Miss Jessel in any way ghoulish. Alec Brown and Anna Polum, in the roles on Friday night, looked fully human—and that’s just fine. The otherworldliness—and palpable evil—that they exude is in the music and the libretto itself. We don’t need a hint of decaying flesh or cobwebby accessorizing to convince us that we don’t want to sit down to tea with them.

One could quibble that Quint needed to look a little rougher around the edges; Brown doesn’t possess any nascent undercurrent of malevolence. His voice tends to the light side (but to be fair, Britten’s writing affords few opportunities even in the mid-range, let alone lower). Brown did deliver a number of strong sequences, particularly in the opening of Act 2, where he and Miss Jessel rehash some of what went wrong while they physically walked the earth. This was one of Polum’s shining moments in the midst of a strong performance, delivering a searing note in a shattering musical and emotional climax to the scene. Polum is arguably the most accomplished of the cast, having recently understudied leading roles at Madison Opera, and scheduled to sing Papagena in that company’s The Magic Flute next month.

Erin K. Bryan portrayed the Governess (we never learn her name), with a wonderful sense of evolving helplessness, as she desperately staves off hopelessness in circumstances wildly beyond her control. Bryan was a wonderful Susanna in University Opera’s Marriage of Figaro, and her performance this weekend revealed some important growth in her acting to match her confident vocalism.

The two children, who are the innocent (shall we put it in quotes or add a question mark?) subjects of Quint and Miss Jessel can be problematic. Miles, a boy of ten, certainly no more than twelve, is written for a boy soprano, and Britten packs the part with all sorts of demands. Simon Johnson handles the vocal duties professionally, never letting the very occasional sense of vocal high-wire duties detract from his very convincing portrayal. It is an easier job for a young soprano to look the part of his sister, Flora, and of course have the benefit of a more mature voice. Emily Vandenberg provided everything the role demands, but most importantly, she seemed perfectly natural in what we shall call physical banter with her “little brother.” Again, credit Ronis for developing a natural sibling sense of tease and borderline disturbing intimacy between the two.

One last quibble is that Mrs. Grose, portrayed by Cayla Rosche, doesn’t look as old as the libretto would seem to indicate. But again Rosche matched her colleagues in producing solid singing and a reliable balance of nuanced acting.

Frank Schneeburger’s set design was functional and evocative, made more so by the lighting of John Frautschy, But the all-encompassing mood sustaining goes to at Kyle Knox, conducting that baker’s dozen of players with equal doses of tension and pacing.

The best news of all is that there are two more chances to catch this Turn of the Screw, with alternate casting in the roles of the Governess, Flora and Miles on Sunday afternoon at 3 pm, and the cast as reviewed heard again Tuesday night at 7:30.


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