Opera review: "The Turn of the Screw" 

Entering Kilbourn Hall, you see a largely barren stage and behind it, a wall seemingly deteriorating from age and poor maintenance. Only wisps and spatterings of white paint adorn the wall, and an ominous staircase ascends to nowhere. The odd, vaguely disturbing architecture of a makeshift fort, consisting of blankets, a table, and a stray pillow, occupies the center of the stage.

On either side of the stage are two beautiful but forbidding art installations. One uses provocatively bare tree branches to represent a large mansion estate. The other is a strange, white totem consisting of a short ladder leading to a rocking horse, out of which springs a gnarly, fledgling tree, representing the innocence of youth. Suddenly, the silence is interrupted by the mischievous laughter of children.

The oppressive, enigmatic scenic design of Charles Murdock Lucas beckons us into Eastman Opera Theatre's production of the chamber opera "The Turn of the Screw," a truly disturbing and lasting work of genius from 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten.

Eastman Opera Theatre and its artistic director Steven Daigle and music director Benton Hess have consistently presented professional-level productions for years - operas featuring brilliant singers from among the school's student ranks, thoughtful and provocative direction, and stimulating set design. Eastman Opera Theatre advances this reputation even more in this tense and searing production.

Britten's score for "The Turn of the Screw" is unbridled magic. The composer had the bewitching ability to create music within a sonic landscape that was always firmly rooted in tonality - a source of familiarity and comfort to many music lovers, but shifty enough to be unsettling.

The complicated textures, the murky harmonies, the densely intellectual musical presentation: all have helped Britten solidify his reputation as one of the best and most important opera composers since his death nearly 50 years ago.

The plot of "The Turn of the Screw" -- based on the Henry James novella of the same name -- centers around a governess who is hired by a wealthy estate owner to take care of his relatives, two orphan siblings named Flora and Miles. The governess is not permitted to contact her employer for any reason, and she quickly discovers that many damning secrets surrounding two former employees of the estate, now deceased, still plague the house and its inhabitants.

The central character of the governess -- played by soprano Yvonne Trobe in the Thursday production that I reviewed -- is full of apprehension and misgivings about her ability to take charge, to be a responsible caretaker for children, to be an adult. The stamina and non-stop intensity required for the role would be a challenge for any singer, and Trobe seemed to relish the challenge. She has a strikingly rich voice, full of substance and allure; she is yet another Eastman student who is poised to break onto the opera scene in a major way.

Britten introduced the character of Peter Quint the valet with a cryptic yet gorgeous aria:"I am all things strange and bold... I am the smooth world's double face." Played here by Nathaniel McEwen, Quint is a perfect slithering menace. He taunts, intimidates, and tortures everyone who crosses his path.

Christiana Goslin and Natalie Vatcher were the ideal Miles and Flora. Both possessed a quality of tone that was undeniably mature but didn't sacrifice the sense of naiveté and childlike errancy that is such a critical component of the opera.

Eastman Opera Theatre's "The Turn of the Screw," which is directed by Stephen Carr and continues through Sunday, November 6, is more than just a competent production. It is a consummate work of art that will linger with opera-goers long after the house lights have gone up.

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