An opera that chills

'The Turn of the Screw' revolves around a governess, ghosts and the secrets of an eerie estate

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2003

Henry James' serial "The Turn of the Screw" chills the spine like a proper Victorian ghost story with eerie candlelight in corridors, a specter in the garden and sleepwalking children who may or may not be possessed by evil sprits. Put to dark and spooky music, the opera by Benjamin Britten is enough to make a corset-wearing lady swoon.

"Back before there was HBO, this is what people did. They sat around and made each other faint with fear, telling stories," said Joyce Parry Moore, artistic director of Opera To Go!, which will open a production of "The Turn of the Screw" this weekend.

"The Turn of the Screw" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Elks Lodge. There will be a preview show with a discussion at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20. The opera plays at 8 p.m. Saturday Feb. 22; 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27; and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1.

James' "The Turn of the Screw" lies within an unofficial literary sub-genre of governess thrillers, following Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" and inspiring the recent film with Nicole Kidman "The Others."

The story is told by a narrator (played by Brett Crawford) before the fire on Christmas Eve. He spins a tale about a governess from a poor family who agrees to supervise children at an isolated English estate.

The governess meets her charismatic boss once and he has only one requirement: she must never contact him again.

"The conditions include not only never contacting him, but being isolated and doing everything herself," explained Parry Moore, who plays the governess.

The governess, who remains unnamed, enjoys her job until she realizes the estate is haunted by the spirits of the former governess (Rebekka Smith) and the valet (Jason Alexander). The children, Miles and Flora (Tom Voight and Leigh Miller), chirp about happily most of the first half of the opera until they begin to sleepwalk and their vocal parts becoming creepy, trailing off at the end of phrases like high-pitched howling ghosts.

"Then there is a question of whether the children need to be protected, or whether they are in league with the spirits," Parry Moore said.

Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper in "The Turn of the Screw" (Lorraine Marshal), is the governess' only adult confidant, but knows more about the haunting than she lets on. As the governess realizes that the children may not be on her side either, she descends into madness.

"The Turn of the Screw" music conductor William Todd Hunt describes the music, which was written in the 1950s, as "moderately contemporary but firmly tonal," meaning that though the music was written in a more modern period, the piece has a traditional sound.

Because of the haunted theme, the score does include some nontraditional percussion, such as the sound of string players hitting their strings with the wooden back of their bows, he said. Hunt also pointed out that the opera has no baritone singer, likely a deliberate choice because the story takes place in a women's sphere, where the "master" figure is conspicuously absent.

Parry Moore is fascinated by the text of the opera, as well as the music, she said.

"It is considered by many as one of the master works of 20th-century music," Parry Moore said.

She pointed out a convention of the Victorian ghost story in "The Turn of the Screw" in which the "horror" in the story is almost completely implied, never shown.

"I know nothing of evil, yet I fear it worse - imagine," sings the tortured governess about the ghosts she feels are ever-present in her home.

"Often we imagine something more threatening than the thing itself," Parry Moore said.

Tickets to "The Turn of the Screw" are $15 in advance at Hearthside Books, or $18 at the door. Student, children and senior tickets are $10 in advance, or $13 at the door.

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