BENJAMIN BRITTEN'S "The Turn of the Screw" is a tight two-act drama, a musical lesson in variations on a simple theme, a show for solo musical instruments, an economy of vocal craftsmanship and a limited action opera where every word counts.
But it's also an ugly story that can scratch at you like chalk on a blackboard. It has snippets of creepy melodies, sinister ghosts, a gloomy tower, weird people, hints of sexual misdeeds, a death, some guilt, dark imaginations and an ill-defined evil that seems to settle even in the seats.
Be forewarned. You can't get one batch without the other as the Peabody Opera Theater forcefully showed last night at the Friedberg Concert Hall. Alas, some words, though not the moods, were lost in the singing. But the night was won by Britten's spare but intense music as played by the Peabody Opera Orchestra and sung by six soloists.
In television horror shows, 90 percent of the scary stuff is the music. Turn it down and you've got little or nothing left. Same here. The Britten drama was visually challenging but from the first thematic notes, the melancholy, frightening variations -- 15 on one 12-note theme -- drove the horror story. Voice and instrument were partners in crime, whatever that was.
Soprano Julianne Borg sang the scared governess with clear, light timbre. Her manuscript's story told of the fight for the souls of the two children she thought were infected by the ghosts of two evil former servants.
The main character in all but a few of the 16 scenes, Borg's neurotic governess showed Britten's dramatic musical punch repeatedly as in the tower scene. After a pastoral passage by woodwinds imitating birds, she saw Quint in the tower. His signature musical instrument, the celeste, was played and she sang fearfully, "Who can it be?" to low gloomy woodwind notes.
Tenor Timothy Bentch (doubling as the prologue singer) was a dominating full-voiced Quint, malevolent down to his walking stick and urgings, "Take it." Soprano Elizabeth Knauer, the other ghost, Miss Jessel, stole out of the orchestra pit and sang her woes, sometimes piercingly, as her purple scarf fluttered. Soprano Melinda Zagarino sang Miles' nonsense verse "malo" hauntingly; the tune became his dirge sung by Borg in a powerful ending.
Conducted by Gene Young, the 13 unseen orchestra players in the pit performed Britten's variations as one gripping adventure after another.
Roger Brunyate skillfully directed the tight production based on the Henry James tale. Set designer Michael Franklin-White, using movable domestic hearth and tower, and lighting designer Douglas Nelson contributed to the essential gloom.
The same cast sings at 8:15 p.m. tomorrow. Tonight at 8:15, the different cast is Jeffrey Fahnestock, prologue and Quint; Kelley Ruth Hijleh, governess; Barbara Mountain, Miles; Nicole Staniszewski, Flora; Darci Bultema, Mrs. Grose; Laura Vicari, Miss Jessel.