Staging a ghost opera on Halloween week is very nearly entering a covenant. Don Giovanni needs his Commendatore, after all. There's no Macbeth without the witches, either, and the Phantom of the Opera without a phantom would just be, well, still opera, but those mortal operas get the whole rest of the year. Presenting a haunted opera at Halloween time is very nearly a promise of a spook show.

Ashley Emerson (Flora) and Jordan Rutter (Miles) © Pavel Antonov
Ashley Emerson (Flora) and Jordan Rutter (Miles)
© Pavel Antonov

New York's On Site Opera company made a surprising and perhaps disappointing decision to downplay the ghosts in its production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw, but that's not the only thing that dragged the evening down. Uneven performances and a busy first half as the audience moved around the Wave Hill estate in the northernmost borough of New York City made for a difficult and distracting staging.

Fortunately, the pros outweighed the cons in the weekend production, starting with the setting. Wave Hill is a 28-acre former estate now owned and maintained by the city, and its manor house and manicured gardens overlooking the Hudson River were perfect for Britten's adaptation of Henry James' tale of a young governess discovering the family secrets and haunts of her new employer. The cast of six was stronger than not. The children – Flora (soprano Ashley Emerson) and Miles (countertenor Jordan Rutter) – were a dark delight, the actors convincing even if not age appropriate. Flora's sass and Miles' brooding defiance left one waiting for them to reappear, like the host's disobedient children at a boring dinner party. The spirits in the house were, likewise, compelling. Tenor Dominic Armstrong was wonderfully articulate through both charming and horrifying scenes. And mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala gave poise and desperation to the late Miss Jessel.

But the unnamed governess and Mrs Grose, an older servant who becomes her confidante, are the heart and mind of the story, and soprano Jennifer Check and mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore failed to convince; the rigid Check in particular could have been a little more Emily Blunt and a little less Julie Andrews to sell the part. With so many voices in the upper register, often overlaid in duets and double duets, enunciation and presence are key for their characters. Check and Lattimore delivered the parts while their co-stars inhabited them.

On Site Opera has been staging site-specific productions in New York City since 2012, with memorable performances including Pygmalion at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square and The Barber of Seville in an Upper East Side townhouse. On top of the usual challenges of mounting a theatrical production, the company creates for itself the task of moving its audience around the selected space. Floorplans necessarily limit audience size – The Barber of Seville had just 50 attendees per show – but the expanse of Wave Hill allowed for an audience of just over 100. Unfortunately, moving 100 people from the grounds, where the evening began, and then between rooms in the estate house, where the majority of the performance took place, caused deep fractures in the continuity.

The facilities also proved challenging for the musicians. Armstrong gave a warm, inviting delivery to the outdoor, introductory prologue, accompanied only by Jonathan Heaney’s electric keyboard. The interior scenes were performed first by a small, mixed ensemble and then, in a larger room, by the 13-piece American Modern Ensemble, under the direction of Geoffrey McDonald. Stationed in a corner of the room and facing the wall, they nevertheless sounded wonderful and on point. Percussionist Clara Warnaar, set slightly apart from the rest, could easily have overpowered the singers or the rest of the ensemble with an expansive setup that included timpani and chimes. She did neither and provided strong dramatic support through the compelling third act.

As for the ghosts themselves, they were realized merely through a dimming of the lights, which – despite strong performances of Armstrong and Zabala – seemed a missed opportunity. Given the chance to create a real, haunted mansion, it’s hard to imagine why On Site Opera chose to leave the pre-Halloween chills to the imagination.

***11