In any narrative, the unmentioned—the unmentionable—will always be more alarming than that which is carefully described. Leaving the horror to the imagination of the reader or listener does the job better. Each of us has his own threshold of quease. It is more personal if it’s our imagination not the teller’s that twists the knife—or turns the screw.
Like Benjamin Britten, who made operas from two of his stories, Henry James throve on ambiguity, implying things roundabout, never quite stating them. Too, James delighted in contrasting the make-believe knowingness of children with the self-deception of adults. Does the child ever really know what she pretends to know (or not to know) in James’s What Maisie Knew? And, “What are you hiding, John?” Ellen Orford demands of the taciturn apprentice in Britten’s Peter Grimes—who perishes, leaving larger questions unanswered.
Apprentice John foreshadows Miles in Turn of the Screw, but this time the composer lets the boy speak, or sing, for himself—saying nothing clearly while singing very clearly indeed. “I should be with my own kind,” Miles tells his Governess—meaning other boys rather than a house full of women? Or among those given to the powers of darkness, as that neurotic lady comes to believe? She could take it either way, and she chooses emphatically; so can we choose, but we don’t have to.
James’s “The Turn of the Screw” was published in 1898 in the era of the High Victorian ghost story of subliminal sexual implication. Rather more artistically than most of that genre, “Turn of the Screw” leaves vague such questions as whether the ghosts exist, who sees them, what motivates their visitations—and also the motivations of the virginal hysteric who may or may not be hallucinating. Not the least of the tale’s hints and obscurities is the matter, in that day barely broached, of the sexuality of children and the feelings adults might unconsciously harbor for them.
By the time Britten composed his opera, the cat of child sexuality was out of the Freudian bag, as was scientific discussion of the unconscious. As for sexual predation upon children or the innocent or the helpless, this was always a red flag in Britten’s oeuvre, a significant trope—almost always ambiguous—in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Rape of Lucretia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Curlew River and Death in Venice. Who is being victimized here, the unconscious child or the repressed adult? This question is also, of course, at the center of Wilde’s Salome, another creation of the naughty nineties.
Britten’s Turn of the Screw, being a stage work, necessarily makes distinct much of what James casually, though with infinite skill, implied. In the story, the ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, whose wicked behavior is never quite defined, may or may not be figments of the imagination of the Governess—indeed, the children whom she hopes to protect accuse her of projecting her fantasies upon their innocent if unorthodox playtimes.
In the opera, Quint sings and Miles hears him, even acts on his improper suggestions; Miles sings of his “badness” in a song derived from a Latin mnemonic. We overhear a lovers’ quarrel among the ghosts derived from the barest whisper in James: Did Miss Jessel indeed drown herself on being seduced and abandoned by Quint? A glancing implication in the story, but in the opera she has a brief, lovely aria to that effect and in the New York City Opera staging she is visibly pregnant. In the opera, the gradual doubts of the Governess’s state of mind are made explicit: We hear her singing in reassuring concords with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Only later, as the simple older woman begins to doubt the Governess’s hold on reality, does their music grow subtly more distant, less parallel.
For whatever reason, the City Opera’s director,
David Sam Buntrock, has chosen to set this dainty and antique, clearly pre-Freudian, piece in the 1980s—as one infers from the sight of Margaret Thatcher yammering on the family TV set interspersed with pictures of the ships of the Falklands business. Besides a naturalistic set and some partial sets “in one,” there are round glass lamps that form a house (when we are outside it) or illumination when we are within.
Ghosts rise and descend by trap doors, are seen or not seen as required, and Miles by himself is lit by several candles, as if invoking the ghosts by some magical process—an idea to which the director was inspired by a line in the libretto referring to one of the candles going out. The update is less intrusive than some similar directorial games in other productions, but I don’t see that it adds anything. If it’s 1983, why bother to write a letter to the Guardian? Why not phone him? Why is this suburban tract house with TV quite so isolated as we understand Bly to be? And why, in that era, is it necessary to drill so much Latin?
The singing at last Sunday’s matinee was quite fine from all six principals. They included Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, a veteran who also sang Miles in Opera Moderne’s production of the opera at Symphony Space last spring. The BAM Opera House is much larger than Symphony Space and he sometimes sounded a little thin in it, but always game and in tune. Flora was given to tiny Lauren Worsham, quite believable as a little girl. (She was the delicious Amy in the City Center Encores Where’s Charley last year.)
Sara Jakubiak, the only member of the cast with a rich and fruity British accent (recalling Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady), has a large, true, velvety voice, utterly certain in intonation and diction, effortlessly filling the theater and poignantly expressing the Governess’s uncertain states of mind. She has sung A Quiet Place with the City Opera and Wozzeck with ENO, but I thought, “This is not a voice for modern opera—this is an instrument I’d like to hear taking on sumptuous long-breathed music.” Happily, there is Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini in her future.
Dominic Armstrong was threatening but not otherworldly as the ghostly Peter Quint, who is also supposed to be ghastly, to shiver our timbers. He sang the part’s extraordinary range and leaps from high to low, from seduction to taunt, with admirable skill. Jennifer Goode Cooper was more spiritually pitiable as his victim and fellow ghost, Miss Jessel. Sharmay Musacchio sang a proper matronly Mrs. Grose. What struck me about all these singers, from the biographies in the program, is how very much new music, often premieres by living composers, they have been performing; it is interesting that they can make a living at such work these days and need not confine themselves to Bohéme and Fledermaus or some small German company.
Jayce Ogren led the opera’s small ensemble in a lithe, subtle performance in which every note seemed pointed, sharp as etched glass in the surface of a Waterford crystal vase. The patterns were very clear; the view through the angled surface indistinct and uncertain only because that was the artistic intention.
PHOTO CREDIT – © 2013 Richard Termine