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Turn of the Screw at LA Opera Review - Eerie and Esoteric

By Georja Umano and Gerald Everett Jones

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(Los Angeles, CA - March 17, 2011) Patricia Racette plays the Governess in Benjamin Britten's 1954 operatic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, an 1890s ghost story by novelist Henry James. In this creepy gothic tale, the governess is dispatched to care for two children, Flora ( Ashley Emerson) and Miles ( Michael Kepler Meo), in a mansion tended only by housekeeper Mrs. Grose ( Ann Murray). The childrens' guardian has been absent for some time, and the governess has sole charge of them. Her responsibilities become both complicated and worrisome when she realizes that the place is haunted by two ghosts, Miss Jessel ( Tamara Wilson) and Peter Quint ( William Burden). The ghosts were lovers in life and apparently knew and formed an attachment for the Flora and Miles. The governess correctly fears that the ghosts wish to possess the childrens' souls. The situation is all the more troubling when the governess realizes that the children are not only aware of the ghosts but also drawn to them. The LA Opera production is conducted by resident maestro James Conlon, with stage direction by Francesca Gilpin.

William Burden as Peter Quint; Michael Kepler Meo as Miles, Patricia Racette as the Governess



Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Gerald: In Hollywood, this is what is called "difficult material," involving as it does insanity and fear of insanity, psychological abuse, and child molestation. This isn't the kind of implausible ghost story that's intended to thrill, as a fanciful horror movie does. No, it's meant to disturb, to expose the dark regions of the human spirit.   Georja: While child abuse was a bold and difficult topic for both James and Britten, and especially coming out of their respective times and societies, it was an important one. They were both grappling with their own homosexuality and evidently for Britten, a childhood rape, according to the program notes. Thus a topic which they were brave to approach, even though it is cloaked as a ghost story, and the details are quite fuzzy. To many in the audience, the piece can be appreciated for its artistic qualities, even though the subject may leave them cold, like looking at a modern art canvas with two straight lines revered in a museum.

William Burden as the Prologue



Gerald: When Henry James published this novella in 1898, there was widespread interest and belief in ghosts and supernatural entities. The seance, in which people made sincere attempts to contact dead relatives, was a popular social event in upper-class private homes. People believed in this stuff, although James probably didn't, but we can guess that he exploited these fears for the sake of a good story that would create a sensation (as it did).

Michael Kepler Meo as Miles, Patricia Racette as the Governess



Georja: Kudos to the courage of the L.A. Opera for presenting this historic "chamber" opera. Fortunately for us it follows on the heels of one of the biggest, funniest crowd-pleasers ever, The Turk in Italy. (See our review LA Opera The Turk in Italy Review - Hilarious and Charming). Being able to experience all different versions of opera helps one gain appreciation, as well as knowledge of what one really likes and why.

Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose, Ashley Emerson as Flora



Gerald: All of the performers are strong, capable singers. I'm not a big fan of postmodern opera in general. I didn't particularly like the music in LA Opera's productions of Grendel and The Fly.  But I have to acknowledge the technical difficulty and the virtuosity of tackling this music. Every word is sung. There is nothing like a melody, which means the singer really must have something like perfect pitch to manipulate her voice as an instrument. And then - when you get several of them in a trio, say, all singing different parts - it's astounding. Listening to these vocalized terrors gives new meaning to Pavarotti's comment that opera is controlled screaming. The emotion is raw, and you'll feel it down to your bones.

Patricia Racette as the Governess



Georja:  Burden's phantom is especially haunting when he is luring the young boy. Wilson's ghost also dredges up fear and worry in every scene she appears, singing or not.  Racette's golden tones come from an appropriately anxious and intense character throughout. Gerald: Meo's performance as Miles is particularly impressive because he's so young (just 12) and yet so obviously accomplished as a vocal artist. And at one point, his hands mime a piano concerto, and if he's not actually a pianist he certainly practiced diligently with someone who is. It was a complicated piano passage, his hands were fully visible, and he was totally convincing.

Ashley Emerson as Flora, Tamara Wilson as Miss Jessel



Georja: The orchestra under James Conlon is impressive. With no more than a dozen musicians, they create some haunting and creepy sounds that add to the suspense of the piece.  Scenery and costuming is wonderful in the hands of Paul BrownDavid Manion's lighting also creates the moodiness. There are no skipped beats in this production. One can admire the whole and not be pulled in to the story. I haven't read the story, but it seems the musical version, while able to create visual effects, and display heightened emotion in the music, may take away some of the spookiness by its inherently slower pace.

Gerald: As I said, this opera is meant not so much as thrill as to disturb. It's a look into the nature of the unexplainable evil in human nature. In the James story as in Britten's opera, the audience is led to believe at first that the ghosts are predators and the children are innocent victims. Then in the final "turn of the screw," we begin to realize that somehow the children are active participants in the evil, are drawn to it, delight in it, and, it's left to us to wonder, perhaps even cause it?

Ashley Emerson as Flora; Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose, Michael Kepler Meo as Miles





Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels

Photos by Robert Millard

Turn of the Screw

Los Angeles Opera
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Los Angeles, CA


www.laopera.com
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Saturday, March 12, 2011, 7:30 p.m.    
Thursday, March 17, 2011, 7:30 p.m.    
Sunday, March 20, 2011, 2:00 p.m.    
Friday, March 25, 2011, 7:30 p.m.    
Sunday, March 27, 2011, 2:00 p.m.    
Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 7:30 p.m.

Published on Mar 14, 2011

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