My only consolation for the fact that I will never write a chamber opera as perfect as The Turn of the Screw is that no one else will, either. A 1954 adaptation of the Henry James novella, with music by Benjamin Britten and libretto by Myfanwy Piper, the opera is a gothic-horror ghost story that stands out for the impeccable psychological rigor of its score and the unsettling power of its libretto. The work is set at a British country manor in the mid-19th century, and On Site Opera, true to its name, produced it at the closest match New York City can offer: Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural center in Riverdale, the oldest buildings of which date back to 1843.
The plot is seemingly straightforward. A young Governess (here, Jennifer Check) goes off to a country estate to take care of two young children, Miles (Jordan Rutter) and Flora (Ashley Emerson). She is not to write to their busy, unseen guardian in London, and the only other person at the house is the old housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Margaret Lattimore)—or so it seems, at first. Before long, the Governess begins seeing specters of Peter Quint (Dominic Armstrong) and Miss Jessel (Adriana Zabala), the erstwhile valet and governess, both of whom died prematurely before the Governess’s arrival. As the ghosts continue to appear, the Governess becomes convinced that they are trying to corrupt her young charges, and she attempts to thwart their plans, with tragic results.
One source of the opera’s brilliance is its richly layered ambiguities. Are the ghosts actually malevolent spirits, or do they have more to do with the approach of puberty? If the ghosts are evil, are the children in league with them, or are they innocents being led astray? Is the Governess protecting her wards, or is she abusively repressing them out of misguided Victorian notions of childhood purity? What exactly happened between Quint, Jessel, and the children, anyway? (Some productions even suggest that the ghosts are entirely figments of the Governess’s imagination, although I personally find this reading unsupported by the script.)
Normally, a given production will come down on one side or the other of these questions. As someone who’s seen or played in the better part of a dozen productions at this point (I may be slightly obsessed), I’ve grown accustomed to seeing directors come down on the sides that aren’t necessarily my favorite.
What I’m not used to is a director trying to come down on every side at once, yet that is apparently what director Eric Einhorn tried to do here. The ghosts are malevolent sexual predators, except when they’re not. The children are terrifyingly in league with them, except when they’re not. The Governess is absolutely losing her mind, except where she’s totally sane. Bizarrely, Mrs. Grose drugs the Governess throughout the show, for reasons that are never explained.
The moment-to-moment direction also falters. Early in the show, as the household prepares for the Governess’s arrival, Mrs. Grose tells Miles to “keep still dearie, or you’ll wear me out.” The script and score call for the children to be bustling about, thus motivating the line. But in this production, both children stayed quite still for the entire scene. (In general, these children never seemed like they might just be rowdy kids getting out of hand—an ambiguity that’s essential to keeping the suspense alive.)
Elsewhere, in a multi-directional confrontation between the Governess, Mrs. Grose, Flora, and Miss Jessel, Einhorn had the characters turn about aimlessly, singing their lines to nowhere in particular instead of at the person they’re confronting—a decision that muddied the action and sapped its focused intensity.
Other incomprehensible directorial choices abound. Characters frequently wander about the space mid-conversation for no apparent reason, which not only diffuses tension, but also wreaks havoc with the set design. After the first few scenes, the rest of the show is staged in a single large room of the Wave Hill House. Rather than do full scene changes, which would have been tricky with no wings or backstage area, the playing area was broken into a number of regions, with a table here, a desk there, a nightstand at the far end to indicate the various rooms of the manor.
But the character’s perambulations not only took them to each of these sub-spaces in each scene, but also had them interact with the furniture there, collapsing the putative distinction the set seemed to be aiming for—the impression was that the Governess’s room was Miles’s room, and also the schoolroom, conservatory, sitting room, and external grounds. (The last item is particularly confounding, since the ghosts’ gradual approach from the grounds to the inside of the house is a major structuring principle of the opera.)
Most confounding of all, it’s not actually clear that Miles dies in this production. Rather than falling dead in the Governess’s arms, as is indicated in the script, Einhorn had Miles walk across the room and hunch over a table, before straightening up and walking offstage. I am genuinely unsure whether that was meant to be read as death or not – other characters used that same exit as a standard way to leave the playing area, so it’s not like exiting that way had been established as a convention for death within the production – but I’m also not sure how one could possibly make any sense of the Governess’s final grief-stricken outpouring, if Miles is still alive.
Einhorn did provide one genuinely lovely innovation. Near the middle of the second act, the Governess confronts Miss Jessel and attempts to banish her from the house, before caving in and writing a letter to the children’s guardian. But instead of disappearing after the Governess’s “Begone! You horrible, terrible woman!” Einhorn had Jessel stay, and write a letter in tandem with her successor. The actors moved through the rest of the scene together, even singing the Governess’s plea for forgiveness in unison.
It was a striking sequence, and one that seemed to reveal Jessel as an unsuspected ally in the fight against Quint. Unfortunately, that allyship makes her subsequent antagonism incoherent – coherence between scenes is clearly more than could be asked of this production – and also resulted in another baffling turn for Mrs. Grose as villain, defying logic and libretto alike.
The actors were doing their best with this. Lattimore convincingly played Mrs. Grose as a devious mastermind hiding under a bumbling façade. Check’s Governess swung hair-raisingly from eager naïveté to unhinged fury. Emerson was deeply unnerving as Flora, slowly having a mental breakdown over the course of the show. Zabala’s Jessel had room for both balefulness and sorrow. Armstrong’s Quint was more oafish than beguiling; he seemed to get his way more through threats of violence than hypnotic seductiveness. Rutter played Miles with an unexpectedly adult cocky swagger, and his spoken lines were jarringly lower than his ringing countertenor, but he also sported a noticeable goatee, so it’s possible the production was making Miles older than he’s usually played.
To take full advantage of the venue, the first two scenes were done outside, on the Wave Hill ground. The next two were done in a small antechamber instead of the main hall. This all added up to rather a lot of shuffling about, and necessitated quite a few cuts and rearrangements to the score. (The actors also had to break the fourth wall in ways totally out of keeping with the way the show is written.) These cuts were ably done, but Britten’s score is deftly put together as a theme-and-variations with an intricate harmonic scheme; these changes clouded both of these structural elements. (Cuts to the variations persisted into the second act, presumably to save time, though at an hour and 45 minutes, The Turn of the Screw isn’t a long show.)
I’m not convinced that this trade-off was worth it. The whole show is a sleek construction, and putting the momentum on hold three times in the first half hour interrupts that flow, making it hard to get into the story. I’d rather have a continuous performance at the expense of having the Governess literally stand outside the house while she sings about being nearly at her destination.
Ultimately, a gimmick isn’t enough; the show actually has to be well done. In thinking through the logistics of moving actors, audience, and instruments from place to place, fundamental questions of dramatic cohesion seemed to fall by the wayside. Wave Hill is a gorgeous setting, and one exquisitely suited for a gothic-horror opera, but that’s no substitute for making the show actually make sense. To quote the first line, it is a curious story, not an incoherent one. Let’s hope its next telling makes more sense.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.