Among the operas of Benjamin Britten’s extraordinary canon, it is the larger ones that attract the most attention: “Peter Grimes,” “Billy Budd” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” turn up regularly in prominent houses worldwide. “The Turn of the Screw,” Britten’s 1954 adaptation of the Henry James novella concerning restless ghosts and corrupted innocents, is smaller, subtler and less widely exposed.
Richard Termine for The New York Times
Pacien Mazzagatti conducts, from left, Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, Glenn Seven Allen, Vivian Krich-Brinton and Elspeth Davis in âThe Turn of the Screw.â
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But in dramatic efficacy it is at least the equal of its grander cousins, and it shows a singular musical ingenuity. It is also the rare work that grows more intensely disquieting the deeper you delve, past clear implications of child abuse, probably sexual, to allusions and suggestions coded so deeply as to be practically invisible to an audience.
“The Turn of the Screw” made all those points anew on Saturday night in a one-off staging by Opera Moderne, a promising fledgling company, at Symphony Space. A major new addition to New York’s operatic ecosphere — if its first season is any indication — Opera Moderne offered a beautifully realized performance of Britten’s delectable music while taking creditable gambles in a largely efficient staging.
Not that all of those risks paid off. In James’s novella buttoned-up tensions fester into more lurid obsessions subtly and gradually — an effect echoed in Britten’s compulsively organized score, which includes a 12-tone theme screwed slowly in permutations throughout the work. Themes introduced early in the opera recur later, corrosively transformed.
But from a Prologue sung as if by a zombie head planted atop an upright piano that a headless footman played in mime, this production loaded the gothic tale with creep show antics redolent of Tim Burton films like “Beetlejuice” and “Dark Shadows.” Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, former house employees returned as sinister ghosts, wore cadaverous makeup slashed with flesh wounds. The boy Miles, pale and ghoul-eyed, had spurts of green in his unkempt hair; Flora, his similarly sallow sister, had fuchsia tresses.
Otherwise the stage director Luke Leonard made outstanding use of limited space, deploying his vocalists in front of and behind an onstage orchestra usually obscured by a translucent scrim. Mute doubles for Quint and Jessel were intriguing and distracting by turns. The children’s intimations of physical violence felt overplayed at times; still, enough ambiguity remained.
Glenn Seven Allen was a mesmerizing Quint, singing with agility and a sweetness that grew appropriately cloying or menacing. Anna Noggle, as the governess who tries to save the children, was instantly lovable for her cheery innocence and riveting in her slow disintegration; vocally, her initially fine account became superb as the evening wore on.
Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, a boy treble, sang with intensity and focus, keenly enacting Miles’s knife-edge balance as victim and villain. Vivian Krich-Brinton, as Flora, was a vivid counterpart. Julia Teitel was a reassuringly grounded Mrs. Grose; Elspeth Davis an appropriately eerie Jessel. And the 13-member orchestra, conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, gave a coolly seductive account of Britten’s haunting music.
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