Houston Grand Opera, Performances Feb. 10 and 13
By JOHN DeMERS
In a long lifetime of near-constant reading, I remember only three stories that really scared the hell out of me.
The winner and still champion was Relic, a thriller that launched what came to be known as the Pendergast Series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (who themselves came to be known as “Preston Child”). Of course, that book cheated: I read it as a rumpled paperback in a 12th century French castle on a hot summer night with the unscreened windows wide open. Sometime after 2 a.m., as I inhaled a particularly intense underground chase scene, a loud cascade of gravel occurred just outside my window in the dark. I think my old room in that castle still has a dent high above the bed, where my head must have hit the ceiling.
The other two stories that still send shivers across the years were Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Both were short – mere novellas, if that – and both were marked by a deep and seemingly life-endangering ambiguity. Don’t Look Now became an almost equally frightening movie starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and Turn of the Screw became one heck of a chilling opera by Benjamin Britten. As the third Britten piece since Houston Grand Opera’s Anthony Freud promised us one a year, the current Australian production gets its chance to dazzle and, at the same time, disturb.
In the story, yet another English governess comes to live at yet another spooky old English manor house, her task to care for two children but her only real instruction to never contact their guardian in London, no matter what she thinks or sees. That she does: thinks and sees – coming to think there’s something evil about the girl named Flora and especially about the younger boy named Miles, and coming to see two ghosts who are drawing ever closer to the children in her care. The ghosts, she learns, are the former housekeeper and another deceased employee, a frightening fellow named Quint.
In the book, these ghosts say nothing – a less-than-perfect bit of opera that Britten fixes directly enough. But they also exist only in the Governess’ narration, inviting us to wonder if they’re figments of her imagination. The literary work’s greatest strength is the way it keeps us doubting her sanity and eventually our own, from first page to last. On the HGO stage, we in the audience see the two ghosts along with her, lessening their impact. Still, the opera has Britten’s scintillating score to fill in layers of psychology that the move from the page and our own imaginations has stripped away.
The real hero of this production is not any character, good or evil – it’s the set, designed originally for Opera Australia by Stephen Curtis, with lighting by Nigel Levings. Built of towering wall sections with mirrors embedded, piece after piece is turned this way and that throughout the two acts to form shadowy interiors, murky exteriors, a midnight garden and even the shore of a darkened lake. With each turn, the mirrors reflect light in odd, smoky ways, reminding us of the subjectivity of all vision and the fear of what, at any moment, we might be forced to see. These striking visuals, paired with Britten’s eerie sounds from only 13 instruments under the Britten-savvy baton of HGO’s Patrick Summers, produce that thing seen least on any opera stage: breathless storytelling.
As in the James novella, published in 1898 at the height of the séance and medium craze, there is little in the “action” to produce head-to-head conflict: no physical tussles with werewolves, no stake-through-the-vampire’s-undead-heart climaxes. Instead, Turn runs on tension, uncertainty, and on building the horror one layer at a time. As directed by Neil Armfield (who’s also brought the other two Britten operas to HGO), Amanda Roocroft carries the weight of this realization in her singing as well as her body language. The sweetness and light of first meeting oh-so-genteel Flora and Miles quickly becomes doubt. And when the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel begin appearing from dark shadows in this house called Bly, Roocroft makes physical the knowledge that she has nowhere to run.
Andrew Kennedy and Tamara Wilson are truly scary as the ghosts, the latter for her singing and clear unhappiness at being put on the roster marked “dead,” the former for looking like a red-haired escapee from a Tim Burton movie of the Beetlejuice period. In his body language, the backing out of rooms expected of proper English valets becomes something darker, a kind of involuntary being drawn back, after each brief appearance, into the bowels of hell. Joelle Harvey and Michael Kepler Meo are terrific as the not-so-innocent children, especially Meo’s singing as Miles. Both know their way around these roles, having sung them last season with Portland Opera.
Photos by Felix Sanchez: (above) Anthony Kennedy and Michael Kepler Meo, (below) Joelle Harvey, Meo, Amanda Roocroft and Judith Forst in HGO’S The Turn of the Screw.