Maazel, performers' `Turn' with Britten is remarkable

Opera review


"So, my dear, we are alone."

Under most circumstances, those words might not raise a shudder, but when uttered by a troubled boy to his governess in Benjamin Britten's masterful opera The Turn of the Screw, the effect can be awfully chilling.

So it was Monday night in a remarkable production presented at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater by famed conductor Lorin Maazel's Chateauville Foundation. Remarkable in that Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic and one of the world's most-gifted conductors, led the performance.

Remarkable also in that a mix of young professionals and students was assembled to create this one, short-lived production.

There were two airings of the opera, each with its own cast, at Maazel's country estate in Virginia last weekend as well as the single D.C. presentation.

Maazel envisions organizing more operatic ventures (not necessarily as long or challenging as the Britten piece) and taking them to schools. The overall quality of this production augurs well for any such activity.

The Turn of the Screw (inspired by the Henry James story) packs considerable theatrical power, filled with dreadful things spoken and unspoken as two ghosts haunt the lives of two young siblings, Miles and Flora, in a British country house where a new governess senses danger and doom.

The score is an ingenious example of theme-and-variations technique, with each scene evolving from a 12-note motive; the music keeps twisting, just as the gradually intensifying horror onstage does.

Maazel, with his usual authority and attentiveness, ensured that the subtlest details in Britten's atmospheric orchestration emerged tellingly from his excellent ensemble of 13 students from New York's Juilliard School. This was playing on a professional level.

Individual voices were not uniformly impressive but added up to a satisfying ensemble that caught the spirit (so to speak) of the opera. As Quint, the dead valet out to corrupt Miles, Jeffrey Lentz excelled with a clean, vibrant tenor, superb diction and a suitably spooky portrayal. His final, desperate confrontation with Miles prompted gooseflesh.

Quint's phantasmal cohort, the former governess Miss Jessel, was vividly sung and acted by Valerie Komar. As the helpless governess, Anne Dreyer's light, bright soprano missed some of the nuance and expressive richness of the music, and her words weren't always distinct. But her singing grew in potency as the drama darkened, and her astute acting humanized the terror tellingly.

Michelle Rice created a sympathetic Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and her firm, warm vocalism made every phrase speak.

The two children in the cast seemed fully possessed by their roles. Tucker Fisher's sweet sound, secure articulation and natural acting revealed the tragic vulnerability of Miles; his delivery of the Act 1 closing line, "You see, I am bad," was particularly compelling. Jessica Moore, if less assured vocally, likewise created a believable characterization as Flora.

Barbara Echle's stage direction included an inspired stretch of silence at the start and a wonderfully creepy dance for the ghosts and children, along with some unimaginative moments that hindered the pace of the opera. Caroline Kallon's simple set could have used more detail, and Kevin Shortall's lighting more variety and shading. But this was, nonetheless, an arresting night at the opera.

The production also provided a welcome reminder of how opera-friendly the intimate Terrace Theater is. It has been many years since Washington National Opera made use of the space. Perhaps Maazel and company can settle in there on an annual basis.

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