Michael R. Anderson
Based on the 1898 novella by Henry James, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw is a complicated study of the boundaries between reality and unreality, of the possible interaction of ghosts and mortals (and amongst each other), and of the supposed corruption of childhood innocence.
Composed in 1954, it was Britten’s first venture into what has been called “chamber opera,” for a small cast and limited instrumentation. It has been the most successful of them, particularly popular with university companies. This new production, which opened Friday evening in Music Hall, is the third given by the UW-Madison University Opera over the years.
It’s a tricky opera to bring off. There are six singers in the cast (two of them children) and twelve instrumentalists in the pit. After a prologue, within two acts there are 16 scenes, alternating with 15 instrumental interludes — themselves a sequence of theme with variations. It is, in all, a work of subtleties and many-layered nuances.
As directed by David Ronis, this production is carefully conceived, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Three roles are double cast. One is that of Flora, one of the two precocious children at an isolated country estate. Heard in the Friday evening performance was undergraduate student Emily Vandenberg, who conveyed well the childish girl. Also in the Friday cast, as young Miles, was Simon Johnson, a boy soprano whose voice inevitably lacked the projection of an adult, but who was very convincing in his ambivalence — is he a clever child or is he possessed by evil?
As the children’s Governess, on Friday evening Erin K. Bryan was strong in voice and acting, though she seemed almost overshadowed by Cayla Rosché, whose powerful voice makes her character, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, a forceful presence.
Of the two ghosts that supposedly aim to take possession of the children, soprano Anna Polum beautifully portrays the proud but fragile Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess. But tenor Alec Brown is disappointing as the evil Peter Quint — he seems and sounds more like a bland matinee idol than a sinister embodiment of evil.
All in all, though, this is a carefully prepared cast. They operate on a single set dominated by large windows variously placed in the background. The pit ensemble under conductor Kyle Knox is pretty thoroughly in command of the treacherously exposed instrumental writing.