UT Opera Pulls Off a Difficult Production of Benjamin Britten's 'Turn of the Screw'

Turning the Screws

Ambiguities swirled like wisps of theater ghosts in last weekend's University of Tennessee Opera Theatre production of The Turn of the Screw at the Bijou Theatre. Based on the novella by Henry James, Benjamin Britten's 1954 chamber opera has invited its share of controversies and interpretations, not the least of which is the insinuation of possible sexual abuse: "things unspoken of." Also, there is the unanswered question: What is the nature of the Governess' struggle against the ghost Peter Quint for control of her young charge Miles?

Unambiguous, however, are the specific qualities that Britten's music requires of its singers—namely, good diction, tone that is clear yet nuanced, and a precise control of voice dynamics. In the production of last Saturday evening, the entire cast was uniformly solid in this respect. Teresa Alzadon was excellent as the Governess in both voice and dramatic ability; the stolid character of Mrs. Grose was expertly handled by Claire Boling; and Lyndon England and Katherine Cardin were exemplary as Miles and Flora, the children at the focus of the power struggle. England's soprano voice and stage presence were perfect for Miles, and Cardin's Flora had a delightful ingenuousness.

Rounding out the cast, directed by UT Opera artistic director Carroll Freeman, were the ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, former employees of the children's guardian uncle who died under mysterious and scandalous circumstances. In an interesting staging touch, their parts were each handled by a trio of singers who appear and disappear on stage and in different parts of the balconies and aisles. The primary ghosts Saturday evening were Jonathan Murphy as Quint and Desiree Lulay as Miss Jessel. The alternate ghosts were Cody Boling, Gavin Wigginson, Joey DiMenno, and Leslee Poole-Adams.

In Britten's score, the instrumentalists are essentially 13 soloists playing as an ensemble. The chamber-sized instrumental force of 13 players in the pit under the baton of conductor James Fellenbaum was particularly notable in the UT production. The group was accurate and disciplined, and they brilliantly handled Britten's range of musical colors and sonorities that are fundamental to the score.

The Turn of the Screw is a work that cries out for a visually minimal scenic concept to contrast the nature of the musical structure and to provide space for the audience's imagination. To that end, scenic designer Robert Cothran provided abstract layers of dangling strings over the stage which slowly moved laterally throughout the evening, bunching and unbunching, tangling and untangling, a metaphor for the story's relationships. The strings hung, however, over a rather traditional-looking set of theatrical platforms and steps. Scenic minimalism in an opera such as The Turn of the Screw can be wildly rewarding, as it can focus attention on the singers and relieves them of the burden of having to overact. But it also requires the courage and resolve to eschew the extraneous and traditional, and carefully and precisely choose and reveal what the audience sees.

In that regard, this reviewer would have preferred to have seen even less, as strange as that may sound. The inherent mystery and drama of such a piece is enhanced if the audience is allowed to use their imaginations and be led by the music to make their own decisions about the ambiguities. This means careful selection of stage objects, even abstracted ones, and precise control over the manner and degree to which they are revealed by the lighting. The interludes between scenes are the musical backbone of The Turn of the Screw. They tie the scenes together musically, provide continuity, and progressively tighten the theatrical tension that is at the heart of the drama. During these interludes, it felt distracting and unnecessary to have to watch bulky set elements being shifted and set—operations that could have been minimized by more abstraction.

It is a rare treat when one gets an opportunity to see lesser-performed operas, especially 20th-century ones such as The Turn of the Screw. It's even more rare when they are performed genuinely and honestly by up-and-coming talents such as those of the UT Opera Theatre. Knoxvillians would be well advised to check and mark their future calendars accordingly.