OPERA NEWS - The Turn of the Screw
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In Review > North America

The Turn of the Screw

Juilliard Opera

Juilliard Opera’s Turn of the Screw, with Joan Hofmeyr, Britt Hewitt, Charles Sy and Rebecca Pedersen
© Rosalie O’Connor

DIRECTOR JOHN GIAMPIETRO'S Juilliard production of The Turn of the Screw turned the story into the Governess’s hallucination. Alexis Distler’s unit set was a stately hall in extreme decay, with a hole in its roof—less the mansion Bly itself than a specter of it, embedded in the Governess’s brain. The singer of the Prologue (Chance Jonas-O’Toole) was a sanitarium doctor in a white coat, reappearing regularly to watch over his unfortunate patient. The directorial ploy threatened to flatten the piece: the central question of Britten’s opera, which stays unresolved, is whether or not the ghosts are figments of the Governess’s imagination; if they are real, then so is the presence of true evil. By providing an answer at the outset, Giampietro risked stripping away much of the work’s ambiguity and power.

But as seen on November 16 (the second of three performances), The Turn of the Screw’s disturbing power remained, mostly because Giampietro directed the cast so well. None of them let the production concept distance them from the work’s emotional center; instead, they all stayed immersed in the chilling drama. Anneliese Klenetsky played the Governess not as a lunatic but as a dignified and vulnerable gentlewoman. Her singing was generally less persuasive than her physical deportment: much of the role sat in her upper register, which didn’t have enough color to convey shades of emotions. But she suggested true vocal potential in the crucial Act II scene when the Governess writes to the children’s guardian. The spare orchestration—a chamber-ensemble deployment of woodwinds—and the middle-voice tessitura encouraged a kind of intimate expression from Klenetsky that we hadn’t heard elsewhere. It wasn’t simply that the voice became warmer and more pleasing here; it also became more expressive: for once, the Governess’s distress emerged in aural terms. 

Juilliard took the unorthodox expedient of casting the boy Miles, usually taken by a treble, with an adult soprano, Britt Hewitt, a third-year undergrad at Juilliard. Britten would undoubtedly have disapproved, but the tactic was understandable in the circumstances: it allowed the conservatory to cast from within. Moreover, Hewitt’s work thoroughly justified the gambit. Her voice, drained of vibrato, eerily mimicked that of a preadolescent boy, the element of gender ambiguity adding to the element of the uncanny that is so much part of Miles’s character. The Flora, Joan Hofmeyr, another Juilliard undergraduate, was less successful in conveying the illusion of childlikeness, although her lyric soprano was lovely. 

Another lyric soprano, Katerina Burton, was Mrs. Grose, usually a mezzo assignment, although it was designated for soprano by Britten. Burton’s voice was too bright to suggest the housekeeper’s age or maternal warmth. In the role of Miss Jessel, soprano Rebecca Pedersen, with her duskier, more complex sound, registered by default as the “mezzo” of the cast. Charles Sy was a truly frightening Peter Quint, his saturnine aspect suggesting a violent nature held barely in check. He gave Quint’s cries of “Miles! Miles!” an unabashed erotic force that brought the horror into sharp, disquieting focus. 

The production concept may have played fast and loose with Britten’s intentions, but conductor Steven Osgood asserted himself as the composer’s true custodian. He drew professional-level playing from his student orchestra; more important, the pacing and the instrumental colors served the drama at every turn. Britten’s musical gestures are spare but specific; Osgood made every note, from singers and instrumentalists alike, carry its expressive weight. The Turn of the Screw’s terror took hold because it was all right there in the music. —Fred Cohn

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