A Britten Bronx Tale: Schlepping apart, “Turn of the Screw” proves an experience at Wave Hill

Sat Oct 26, 2019 at 3:38 pm
Dominic Armstrong as Quint in On Site Opera’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wave Hill in the Bronx. Photo: Pavel Antonov

“Choose a lantern that speaks to you,” an usher intoned as patrons stumbled through the dark in the general direction of the Hudson River. It was after sundown Friday, and the candle lanterns sat glowing red in front of an old stone overlook at Wave Hill, a banker’s estate turned public garden in a posh quarter of the Bronx. 

Several dozen lantern-bearing audience members stood in a semicircle at the base of the terrace, looking like a convention of ferrymen (and ferrywomen), waiting for the first of three sold-out shows to begin — and with more schlepping to come.

The Hudson Valley is known for its brisk business in immersive outdoor Halloween experiences, but this wasn’t quite that. On Site Opera was staging a field production of The Turn of the Screw, a 1954 Benjamin Britten opera based on a canonical haunted house story by Henry James. 

The production was another win for the intrepid crew at On Site Opera — well sung and played by a small cast and chamber orchestra that punched way above their weight. The 12-musician American Modern Ensemble and conductor Geoffrey McDonald sounded bigger when needed and, apart from some pitchy strings in the first act, delivered all the intricacy and emotional range of Britten’s score. The Victorian costumes and somber lighting felt like they could be Wave Hill’s default settings. 

The estate made for an enjoyable if sometimes awkward setting of the work. As the audience moved around the property, from lawns to splendid interiors, the production also fell prey to the pitfalls of adapted environments, which lack the dependable controls and conveniences of a proper theater. And not all of the suspense and mystery that charge James’s 1898 novella survived this retelling. 

Britten is partly responsible for dissipating some of the drama: He emphasizes, even more quickly than James, that the two orphaned children whose fates hang in the balance seem pretty much okay with being swallowed up by the old English country manor and its awful ghosts. Britten’s thorny musical language in this work definitely favors the forces of darkness. By the time the new governess at the center of the story arrives, the battle for the souls of these somewhat feral little lambs is arguably lost. 

In the early going of this production, we find siblings Flora and Miles singing creepy lullabies and engaged in comically bad behavior. Flora pantomimes smothering her brother with a pillow. Miles pulls her across the floor by the hem of her gown. Miles, in particular, seems like a Damien in the making: He’s been kicked out of school for some unspecified violence against a classmate. 

Soprano Ashley Emerson and countertenor Jordan Rutter, both adults, embody the mischief of Flora and Miles, respectively, with Addams Family panache. But even as things turn more serious it’s tough to find much in the portrayals to elicit a paternal rooting instinct. There is anguish in Rutter’s rueful cries of “Malo,” the Spanish word for evil, but stage director Eric Einhorn has made it more rewarding to just accept the kids as bad seeds, even if doing so dampens interest in the governess’s agonized desire to save them.

Soprano Jennifer Check as the governess gave the full measure of her voice to a character who is admirable in her caring and sympathetic in her struggles, if a little slow to appreciate how troubled her young charges are. She is ultimately out of her depth against a pair of embedded ghosts; an oblivious housekeeper, Mrs. Grose; and the absent, uninvolved uncle of the children, who we never see but whose instructions to the governess we learn are to never trouble him with this household’s woes. 

Check sang with affecting self-doubt when asking herself, “Why did I come?” and with a fierce purity when confronting the ghosts of the previous governess, Miss Jessell, and the groundskeeper, Peter Quint. The real villain of the piece, Quint in life was a sexual predator who seduced Miss Jessell and abused Miles, and then died in freakish circumstances — “Fell on the icy road/struck his head,” mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore sang in her appealing turn as the hapless Mrs. Grose. 

In death, Quint continues to feed on the energy of the damaged boy. Tenor Dominic Armstrong — who also sang an opening narrative outside on the garden terrace — was an imposing and genuinely frightening Quint. His entrance as the malign ghost included an ad-hoc bit of chain-rattling, kicking aside a stray chair left in his path by an audience member. 

But it wasn’t Armstrong’s physical presence alone that made Quint memorable. He sang with a pained arrogance in presenting Quint as the true head of the dying house — a “riderless horse” running roughshod over all. He was an unsettling, shuddering voice in Miles’s ear as he coaxed the child to spurn the governess and remain with him.

As his ghostly counterpart, soprano Adriana Zabala as Miss Jessell — who has taken her own life — was chilling in her traumatized, post-mortem neediness and warped affection toward Flora. When Armstrong and Zabala converge on the line that librettist Myfanwy Piper incorporated from W.B. Yeats, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” it was one of the opera’s most searing moments. 

In the end — and without revealing too much — the children’s fates diverge. But getting out of the house alive feels like scant consolation after all the emotional violence visited by the dead on the living. 

The main Wave Hill mansion is an inspired pick for a living stage, and on the walk from the terrace it beckoned like a slightly less forbidding House of Usher. 

Still, toting lanterns between set pieces across about a hundred yards of estate invariably proved a bit of a momentum killer. A drawing room and chandeliered, chapel-like hall that served as the indoor stages were spectacular, but with everything staged at floor level, sight lines were inconsistent for anyone not in the first row. 

The mobile phone app that streamed titles kept better pace with the performance for opera goers who had remembered beforehand to plug into Wave Hill’s wi-fi signal. But overall On Site Opera has again demonstrated that with imagination and preparation, and a sporting audience, musical art flourishes in almost any setting.  

Turn of the Screw will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday at Wave Hill, 4900 Independence Avenue, Bronx. The shows are sold out, but there were unoccupied seats at Friday’s performance. osopera.org

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