Opera Vivente turns in a strong and haunting `Turn'




In transforming The Turn of the Screw into an opera, Benjamin Britten does not provide answers to the questions posed in the chilling novel of that name by Henry James.

Are the ghosts real, or merely imagined by the repressed governess who arrives at a country home to care for two orphaned children? What exactly happened between the former governess, the valet and the children before both adults died?

Britten only adds to the uncertainty, and the unease. His remarkably concise opera puts us deep inside this gothic tale of innocence threatened, defiled and lost, but we can never know for sure what dark secrets are at the heart of the plot. That so much is left up to the imagination may be the scariest thing of all.

This truly haunting quality is effectively exploited by the Opera Vivente production that opened over the weekend at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where it will be presented twice more this week. It's one of the most accomplished efforts I've seen from this adventuresome, modest-sized company.

Set and lighting designer Paul Christensen conjures up considerable atmosphere with an economy of means. The scenes change seamlessly; ghostly appearances are sufficiently spooky. Company founder John Bowen directs the action with a sure hand, maintaining tension throughout. Norah Worthington's evocative costumes fill out the picture.

Last Friday's performance was particularly notable for standout singing and acting from Zachary Stains, as Quint, the valet calling from the grave. The tenor's tonal warmth and superb diction enabled him to convey myriad nuances in the dreadful, but irresistible, character. (In a different guise, he also sang the narration in the Prologue compellingly.)

This Quint had a sturdy opponent in Kelli Harrington, as the Governess. Her vibrant vocalism and keen theatrical instincts yielded a rich interpretation.

Michelle Rice, as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, was another strong presence. Siobhan Kolker, as the spectral Miss Jessel, didn't always produce a centered tone, but created a potent portrayal.

Britten demands much in the roles of the children who are caught in the crossfire of normal and paranormal forces. Elisabeth Bull, as Flora, and Nicholas Pazdalski, as Miles, didn't bring all the desired clarity, color or firmness to their lines (I was a little worried that his voice was going to change right before our ears), but both proved adept at capturing the unsettled nature of the characters.

Conductor JoAnn Kulesza brought out much of the power in the score from a mostly tight, accomplished ensemble.

And what a brilliant, endlessly fascinating score it is. Britten builds it out of variations on a 12-note theme, an ingenious process that helps make the orchestra as much a protagonist as anyone onstage. Amazing how menacing a couple of bassoon notes can be.

`The Turn of the Screw' will be repeated at 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. For tickets, call 410-547-7997.

Sunday delights

Two memorable Sunday concerts are still in my ears.

In the afternoon, Pro Musica Rara's artistic director Allen Whear opened the organization's 31st season with a solo cello recital that featured two of Bach's astonishing suites for that instrument.

He played the G major Suite with admirable facility and a flair for putting a real spring into the dance-related rhythms. A smudge or two aside, the performance of the darkly shaded C minor Suite found Whear just as strongly communicative, enjoying an extra bonus from the reverberant acoustics of the Marikle Chapel at the College of Notre Dame.

The cellist filled out the concert with sensitively played examples of solo cello music from before and after Bach's benchmark contribution to this rarefied genre.

Shriver Hall Concert Series launched its 40th anniversary season with some downright incendiary music-making by top-drawer artists Sunday night.

The Takacs String Quartet burrowed into Mozart's so-called "Dissonant" Quartet, finding as much drama as elegance. The whole piece, not just the strange harmonies at the start that inspired the nickname, sounded almost revolutionary here.

With there ever-engaging pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the ensemble offered an edge-of-the-seat, intensely passionate account of Brahms' F minor Piano Quintet.

Ohlsson had the stage to himself for Chopin's B minor Sonata. In the first two movements, the playing seemed to be more about fluency than feeling or color, but the pianist achieved in the Largo a sublime level of introspective poetry.


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