Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw is a sensible choice for the New York City Opera: its chamber orchestration and emotional intimacy make it unsuitable for production by the Met Opera (against which every other company in town must define itself), and its claustrophobia would seem to offer a great opportunity for one of the company’s more innovative directors to create something creepy and unexpected. It also enjoys the name recognition to fill seats – which has, unfortunately, been an issue for the company’s more adventurous recent efforts. But while this production, which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday afternoon, offers a step forward in musical values from some of the company’s other recent efforts, it doesn’t really do this striking work justice.

Turn of the Screw, Sara Jakubiak and Benjamin Wenzelberg © Richard Termine
Turn of the Screw, Sara Jakubiak and Benjamin Wenzelberg
© Richard Termine

Adapted from Henry James’s novella of the same title, The Turn of the Screw deals with Britten’s favorite themes of childhood and the loss of innocence, this time in the Gothic setting of an isolated English country house. Sam Buntrock’s production (design by David Farley) is at its best in the beginning. As a narrator known as Prologue explains the situation – a Governess is assigned to watch over two orphaned children and must not report back to their guardian on their progress – we see the eager Governess meet with the mysterious figure of the guardian. Then she steps forward, the curtain falls, and we see her nervous drive to the house, in front of a projection that seems to recall an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

But while the clothes look to be updated to the 1960s, later we learn, via TV footage of the Falklands War and a few too many Star Wars references, that it is actually the early 1980s. While a retro horror thriller atmosphere seems to have potential, Buntrock’s literal-minded production doesn’t do the work many favors. The two-level set’s most effective elements are a series of raising and lowering lamps, and door and window frames define the spaces effectively enough.

But both the design and direction are a clumsy mix of gratuitous clutter (such as Miles’ Star Wars-inspired bedroom and a constantly flickering TV in the living room) and minimalism (those window frames), when the work’s stark mystery seems to demand a stronger, more abstract, and more serious hand. (I could not help but think of Buntrock’s 2012 production of John Guare’s tiresomely wacky play Are You There, McPhee?, similarly a ghost story set a few decades ago. But the stark Screw has little in common with Guare’s dramaturgical diarrhoea.)

The ghosts of the children’s previous caretakers, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, both appear as zombies. Their stringy hair and Quint’s blood-spattered face look more hokey than suggestive, nor are their matter-of-fact entrances convincingly shocking. Buntrock often leaves the singers to fend for themselves, with stage pictures often turning static, and leaves us with a simple ghost story with few actual scares. While many have suggested that the Governess is only imagining the other characters, Buntrock does nothing to suggest this further ambiguity. We don’t really figure out what Quint and Jessel are after, but being haunted by zombies who rise out of trapdoors in Brooklyn leaves rather too little to the imagination.

Fortunately the cast and conductor Jayce Ogren manage to bring some life to the proceedings. While the small orchestra at times seemed swallowed by BAM opera house, with the winds in particular not making it out of the pit (at least from my seat in the middle of the orchestra section), this was in general a step up in confidence from some shaky recent City Opera efforts. Ogren paced the work effectively and coordination was decent.

As the Governess, soprano Sara Jakubiak may be the best thing about the production. Following up on her star turn as Fiordiligi in last season’s City Opera production of Cosi fan tutte, her Governess is well-meaning and eager, but naïve and tentative. Her voice is clear and very strong in the upper reaches, only the lower notes sometimes disappeared, and every word was understandable, making the surtitles really unnecessary.

Dominic Armstrong has, as befitting a Britten tenor, a Peter Pears-adjacent sort of voice, though more clarion and less nasal. His Peter Quint was, if never quite dramatically scary, vocally haunting. Benjamin Wenzelberg made a disconcertingly confident Miles, acted with a naturalism that eludes most child performers and sung with unerring accuracy. If anyone in the production had a secret, it was he. While Lauren Worsham sang beautifully and acted youthful to the best of her ability as Flora, it was hard to believe that this young woman was of a similar age as the age-accurate Wenzelberg and would still be playing with doll, though there was nothing in the production that seemed to suggest that she was playing Flora as developmentally stunted. In the supporting roles of Mrs Grose and Miss Jessel, contralto Sharmay Musacchio and soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper both sang very loudly, with Goode’s rich, round soprano in particular reaching the rafters of the theater.

This was a welcome opportunity to hear an important work; however, one wishes the production could have presented a more compelling and suggestive point of view. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

***11