If you asked me which 20th-century opera is the most chilling, I would say Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. But you can decide for yourself when you see the Madison Opera production of this tragic psychodrama in the Playhouse at Overture Center on Jan. 28-31.
"The Madison Opera received a grant to produce the opera from the Britten-Pears Foundation in London," says Allan Naplan, the company's general director. "It's rare for an opera company our size to get this award, so this is a very significant event for us."
The Turn of the Screw takes place in the middle of the 19th century at Bly, an English country house. A young governess (Caroline Worra) is employed by a handsome young man to care for his niece and nephew, Flora (Jennifer DeMain) and Miles (Alistair Sewell), but there are conditions that come with the job: She is not to write to him about the children or contact him in any way about their well-being.
When the governess arrives at Bly House, all seems well. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Julia Faulkner), has groomed the children on their bows and curtsies, so they greet the governess with charm and innocence.
The first indication of trouble is a letter from Miles' school that he has been expelled. Trouble deepens when the governess sees the ghosts of the former valet, Peter Quint (Gregory Schmidt), and the former governess, Miss Jessel (Jamie Van Eyck). Both died under mysterious circumstances, and the governess thinks they have come back to Bly House to claim the children. Myfanwy Piper's libretto suggests that Quint had an unwholesome control over Miles and that his ghost continues these malicious endeavors.
The opera becomes a battle between the ghosts and the governess who tries to protect the children from them. Her struggle is fraught with psychological tension since no one else claims to see the ghosts. We want the governess to win the battle, but when the ghosts sing "The Ceremony of the Innocence is Drowned," we know her chances are slim.
The music is a set of variations on a twelve-note theme. Each note is sustained while the next one enters until all 12 sound together. The result is organized dissonance that begets alluring melodies that seem to rise from somewhere beneath the earth. Nursery rhymes are sung over worried chords and rhythms that keep tension high. We associate the theme with Quint, but when the governess sings it at the climax of the opera, ambiguity creeps into the plot. Is she mad? Is she possessed?
The opera is divided into 16 scenes, beginning with a prologue sung by Schmidt. Each takes place in a different location, so set and lighting designer Erik Paulson is using projections and still-photo imaging to give the illusion of changing locations without changing the set.
The director is Doug Scholz-Carlson, who directed The Tender Land in 2008, and John DeMain conducts members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra through Britten's knotty score.
When Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898, he didn't know Benjamin Britten would base an opera on it 56 years later or that an all-Wisconsin cast would present it in Madison in 2010. What he knew was that his story might keep readers up at night, wondering if the ghosts are real or imagined. If they're imaginary, then the opera becomes a Freudian thriller. If they're real, that's quite a different thing, isn't it?