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UW Opera: "The Turn of the Screw"

Britten: The Turn of the Screw

Prologue narrator: Daniel Gallagher, tenor
Governess: Emily Wallace, soprano
Mrs. Grose: Kathleen Otterson, soprano
Miles: Matthew Giebel, treble
Flora: Holly Boaz, soprano
Peter Quint: Garnet Brooks, baritone
Miss Jessel: Mimmi Fulmer, soprano
UW Chamber Orchestra
Karlos Moser, conductor


A ghost story seems fitting for Hallowe'en. But what the University Opera presented (I saw it the next day) was not just any spooky yarn. Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw is based on the story by Henry James. This opera is one of the most difficult full-size works in the repertory, and frankly I had doubted beforehand that the performance could be remarkable. I was very wrong, for there were but a few glitches, all minor, and the strengths were indeed impressive.

The story, briefly, is that a governess comes to a remote house (it's haunted, of course) to look after two young children, Flora and Miles. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, has done her best to protect the children from knowing about the scandalous past of the now departed Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, but the ghosts increasingly assert themselves. There is no happy ending to the story.

Karlos Moser, always extremely attentive to cueing his singers, also commanded the 13-piece chamber orchestra, comprising mainly faculty instrumentalists, with great care. The parts are fiendish, and the players did very well. Charles Trieloff's set was a little scary (lots of altitude and no handrails), but there were no mishaps and it provided ideal spaces for the action. The cast is small, but still Cecelia Schieve's stage direction, together with good lighting by Don Hill, made clear sense of space and character.

It may seem odd that there were supertitles for an opera in English, but they were necessary if you didn't know the work, for Britten's vocal lines tend to hover in the upper registers of the singers' voices, where vowels can be indistinct and consonants tend to disappear. But the singing itself, that's the really demanding part: finding one's pitches in a very thick harmonic texture.

After the prologue narrator (Daniel Gallagher) sets the time and style of the action, the story begins. As Miss Jessel, Mimmi Fulmer conveyed bitterness and torment effectively. As Quint, Garnet Brooks didn't always hold his pitch, but he nicely embodied the willfully malign and grasping qualities of his character. Kathleen Otterson's Mrs. Grose was well sung and she was able to sustain the hope-against-hope kindly aspect of her character. As the mischievous Flora, Holly Boaz was exceptionally strong both as a singer and as an actor. Matthew Giebel was altogether amazing as Miles, the more so because though he's young enough to still be a treble, he had real depth in his portrayal of the complex and troubled youth. But Emily Wallace, playing the huge and very demanding role -- from both acting and singing standpoints -- of the Governess, knocked me flat. It's a huge high soprano voice, a little tricky to control until she had warmed up, but by the end of the opera she was overwhelming, really quite marvelous.

Old Music Hall was full and the applause was very warm. Very fittingly so, I thought.

Isthmus, November, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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