Honoring Britten’s Turn of the Screw in New York

This season, the opera world celebrated the bicentennials of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner with seasons bloated with the composers’ works. The lives and careers of Verdi and Wagner ran parallel to one another, each establishing himself as the imminent composer of his country at the height of late nineteenth-century nationalism.  The composers were pitted against one another by popular and scholarly opinion, and, two hundred years after their births, the composers are still side-by-side, their works forming the backbone of the standard repertory.

Barely peppering the 2012-2013 season are the operas of British composer Benjamin Britten, born on November 22, 1913 in Suffolk, England. Like Verdi and Wagner, Britten became the symbol of his country’s musical identity, his reputation solidified after the devastation of World War II, when ravaged nations and the disillusioned masses were starving for hope and renewal.

Britten earned his place in music history with monumental works like Peter Grimes and the War Requiem, both with nationalistic sentiments, but it is in the more intimate genres of song, chamber music and chamber opera where Britten’s talent for clearly crafted communication shines bright. Britten’s chamber operas, which include The Rape of Lucretia (first performed in the United States on Broadway in 1948), Albert Herring, Death in Venice and The Turn of the Screw, display his mastery of storytelling, musical innovation, and text setting. Every contemporary composer writing in English needs to do a comprehensive study of Britten’s miraculous ability to make the English language sing in a way that is idiomatic, unpretentious, and naturalistic. This is the secret to Britten’s popular success and the reason that his operas have entered the standard repertory while the scores of his esoteric contemporaries languish in academia.

New-York-City-Opera-Turn-of-the-Screw Jennifer Goode Cooper, Dominic Armstrong, Sara Jakubiak
Jennifer Goode Cooper, Dominic Armstrong, Sara Jakubiak ©Richard_Termine

Opera as a Horror Flick

After a lackluster 2012 season, New York City Opera began 2013 with a gratuitously obvious production of Thomas Ades’ Powder Her Face, in which the music and drama got lost behind eye candy, video cameras, and physical stunts. Thankfully, Sam Buntrock’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw approaches the material differently. Although Buntrock updates the action of the story from mid-nineteenth century Gothic suspense to a contemporary horror flick à la The Poltergeist, the story and themes are still present and the relationships between the characters, so clearly delineated in the novella by Henry James and the operatic adaptation by librettist Myfanwy Piper, are brought to the forefront. By focusing on the aspects of the story that the average audience member can relate to, Buntrock really brings the opera to life.

Starring as the Governess who travels to Bly Manor to take care of two peculiar orphans, Miles and Flora, soprano Sara Jakubiak played the character with the appropriate naiveté and aloofness but none of the required sharpness of terror. Thrust into a strange situation, with ghostly apparitions and a pair of eerily good and prodigious children, Jakubiak’s was blandly fearless. Her confrontation with the ghost of Miss Jessel, sung and acted with a great mélange pathos and revulsion by Jennifer Goode Cooper, fell flat. In the final scene, when the Governess and Peter Quint battle over Miles’s soul on a bare, shaded stage, you would think that Jakubiak was haggling with a mute street vendor.

Where Jakubiak waned, tenor Dominic Armstrong waxed too strongly on the side of vaudeville caricature as Peter Quint. Wide-eyed, dripping with blood from a head wound, and with his head cocked to the side like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, his characterization and, perhaps, Buntrock’s vision of the role, was too obvious to be truly scary. Nonetheless, Armstrong’s voice was clear and expressive with fluent articulation.

Lauren Worsham and wunderkind Benjamin P. Wenzelberg as Flora and Miles gave the most complete performances of the evening. She may have the perfect features to play a young girl, but soprano Lauren Worsham has the voice and the intelligence of the rising artist that she is. Rather than sounding infantile, Worsham sang brightly without sacrificing tone or musicality. Her posture, head movements, and pouty eyes were a master class in physical acting. Wenzelberg, whose resume reads like that of young Britten’s, navigated Miles’s tricky music with ease and still had ample mental space left over to fully commit to a character. Britten entrusts the singer who plays Miles with a psychologically complex character, one typically far beyond the years of your typical pre-teen. The ovation that audience gave Wenzelberg was not the obligatory one given to a precious child actor, but one given in appreciation of a consummate artist.