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A Merciless, Glorious Turn of the Screw

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Britten / Pears, Vyvyan

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Harding / Bostridge, Rodgers

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Bedford / Langridge, Lott
Jeffrey LentzThere was little advance notice that the season for opera in Washington got an exciting addition, but the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was filled nonetheless when Lorin Maazel presented Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw on Monday night. Everyone who was there will likely agree: it was the best opera performance that this city has witnessed this season. By far.

Britten’s Turn of the Screw is a fantastic opera – for chamber forces, three sopranos, tenor, and boy and girl soprano – but also a difficult opera and not likely to appeal to everyone. All those who attended the Châteauville Foundation production at the Terrace Theater knew what they were in for: a dense, chilling, creepy, and creeping psychological thriller set to haunting music that matches the action (or unbearable inaction) every step of the way.

I cannot recall the last time I had – literally – chills from head to toe. Here I did, when Miles, the boy, musters his courage, acknowledges the evil done to him, and cries out against his tormentor, the (molesting) spirit: “Peter Quint, you devil.” It was but one highlight among many. The cast was very even, very good – even superb. Primus inter pares was the outstanding tenor Jeffrey Lentz (excellent diction, haunting singing, good acting) as former manservant cum ghost Peter Quint. Michelle Rice as housekeeper Mrs. Grose had a marvelous, rich voice; Anne Dreyer was a very attractively chirruping and well-acted Governess, if with less clear diction than the rest. Miss Jessel, the former governess, now haunting Chez Bly (the uncle of the children Flora and Miles) in tandem with opponent/partner in crime Peter Quint was dramatic and ethereal in equal parts, sung by Valerie Komar. Tucker Fisher (Miles) and Jessica Moore (Flora) acted and sang their parts as well as one can imagine; just towards the very end of the opera did one hear the strain on little Mr. Fisher’s soprano. But at that point, drama and acting are more important – and they both were delivered spectacularly.

Anne DreyerThe opera's story by Henry James was adapted with sly and cunning skill by Myfanwy Piper. It combines the entertainment (albeit a very dark, scary entertainment) of a Broadway show with the quality of the finest literature, compelling the viewer/listener along with music that becomes a soundtrack (but none of the negative associations of “soundtrack” whatsoever) of the most haunting sort. Unforgivingly, the story of the hidden torture that the kids have to endure plows ahead. By the end, the opera has the audience in its palm and we allow it to crush us, willingly. Neither goosebumps nor chills were caused by the air conditioning.

Other Articles:

Tim Page, Young Singers Take A 'Turn' for the Better (Washington Post, May 21)

Charles T. Downey, Turn of the Screw (DCist, May 23)

Philip Kennicott, Maazel & Co. Make Impressive 'Turn' (Washington Post, May 24)

T. L. Ponick, 'Screw' a tricky vocal turn (Washington Times, May 24)

Tim Smith, Maazel, performers' 'Turn' with Britten is remarkable (Baltimore Sun, May 25)
If one takes to the music – and compelled by the drama one might more easily than by simply listening to a recording – it is impossible not to find it glorious. The chamber orchestra of youngsters under Lorin Maazel was a perfect little troupe. They supplied the passion, Maazel, probably the technically most gifted American conductor, turned them into perfection of playing and expression. Not only were the exposed and often challenging parts mastered with bravura, even the pauses and silences were masterfully judged. Piano, celesta, bells and harp play a prominent role amid four strings, flutes, oboe (and cor anglais), clarinets and horn. Fourths (alternatively threatening and joyful) and minor thirds dominate the musical mood and run through the score and story like the Ariadne-string – in ever changing, slightly different guises. Layer after layer is peeled away from the horrible truth that plagues the children. When salvation finally comes, it comes at the cost of Miles's life. The – already bitter – triumph of the Governess turns into a concluding requiem.

After this utterly moving experience, parents of small children will have been tempted to set up watch at their youngsters' bed; opera lovers meanwhile cannot wait to be granted another such gift from Maazel and his Châteauville Foundation. Indeed, the event just screamed out for the opportunity to hear other chamber or Baroque operas in the Terrace Theater with its very fine acoustic. Less expensive productions for the cognoscenti – Hindemith, Menotti, Blacher, Martinů, Glass, Henze next to Rameau, Lully or Scarlatti – would enrich the cultural life in Washington immensely. Whether that will remain a pipe-dream or not, the memory of this Turn of the Screw will remain something to feast on for a while.