For its final offering of the 2010/11 season. LA Opera presents “The Turn of the Screw,” a work that is puzzling and problematic on a number of levels. Let’s start with the puzzling: the opera is based on an 1898 ghost-story novella by Henry James — a tale so ambiguous that critics cannot agree whether the events take place in reality or imagination. This could have great dramatic possibilities, but this 1954 adaptation by English composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper crosses the artistic Rubicon with an incomprehensible mix of obscure references, dramatic dead ends, and tuneless singing.
The problems arise principally from the libretto and singing, but it would be unfair to blame it all on the librettist, a friend of Britten’s who was better known as a set designer. The issue really rests with how Britten muddied the story to suit his own purposes. James’ novella is ostensibly about a boy and his sister under the care of a governess and housekeeper who are held in thrall by two ghosts. Thematically, however, it is about examining the ways in which children can become corrupted, or whether they are corruptible at all in view of their sometimes extreme impulses. This theme would have appealed to Britten who had a well-known penchant for adolescent boys throughout his adult life. In an opera based on these themes, Britten could also make some veiled social commentary about homosexuality and British society. But Britten had to be careful how he framed any references to homosexuality. Newspapers in 1950s England were full of stories about men like Lord Montagu being sent to prison for their man-on-man indiscretions. And so it is only through this arcane lens that we begin to understand the strange and baffling Latin references that are woven throughout the work. At one point, Miles (the boy) sings his Latin lesson with a long list of nouns, which can be politely translated as cabbage stalk, sword, crowbar, knobbed stick, waterpipe, punchbag, hindquarters, etc. Is it a coincidence that these are all Latin slang words for penis, scrotum, anus, etc. that well-educated gays like Britten’s friend W.H. Auden would recognize as a sort of code? Miles sings another song “Malo” at the beginning and end of the opera, which is an old schoolboy Latin mnemonic to help distinguish between the verb “malo” (I wish), the nouns “malus” (apple tree) and “malum” (evil), and the adjective “malus” (wicked). Others have suggested that this is Britten’s sub rosa effort to portay Miles as “a gender-crossed Eve, the temptress whose apple induced Adam into sexual fall.” Whether one believes this interpretation or not, it makes for an unneccesarily opaque drama.
To be fair, Britten’s skill as a composer is always evident, and it is a pleasure to listen to James Conlon conducting this inventive, modernist style music that has echoes of Debussy and Schoenberg. Melodic it’s not, but it is appropriate to the odd, mysterious mood of the production. But for some reason, it’s as if the vocalists had never heard the score before. Throughout, the two female leads sing in a droning recitative that ambles along on one note, with an occasional quarter note interval up or down before returning to par, with barely a nod to what the intstrumentalists are doing. And it doesn’t help that the English-language libretto requires annoying, stilted “opera-only” pronunciations mixed with otherwise American-accented English: “Ond I mahst not stray from the pahth…” Lots of vibrato. You get the idea. Also, there is just no opportunity here for any singer to show their chops. There is nothing remotely challenging for a trained singer, and of the two duets offered, none lasts for more than 30 seconds. Tamara Wilson as the ghost Miss Jessel was the most memorable in her characterization and singing.
This is clearly a money-saving, recessionary production, and it shows. There are only a dozen musicians in the pit and six singer/actors… no chorus. The sets are sparse and spare, relying on a revolving, canting double bank of windows to suggest walls, roofs, water, etc. The lighting director deserves credit for using this effectively to magnify light and project shadows on the walls. Multiple concentric revolving circles on the floor serve to whisk furniture around, and there is a gnarly branch that looks rather like a praying mantis that descends from the ceiling from time to time, but don’t expect much more than this for set design.
One could envision a more involving opera with better set design, a more “gothic” feel, and with more emphasis on the Jamesian questions of the nature of evil and who corrupts whom; but as it stands, it is simply muddled and pretentious. By example, consider the following line from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” that recurs through the opera: ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Mysterious? Sure. Profound? Maybe a little. But let’s be wicked and read ahead to the next line in Yeats’ famous poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Now that seems to be more apt in describing the goings-on, which seem unable to rise above either the melodramatic or the narcoleptic.
“The Turn of the Screw” continues through March 30 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Visit www.laopera.com.