July 22--"The Turn of the Screw," Benjamin Britten's 1954 chamber opera based on the Henry James novella, is a virtuoso feat of theatrical compression. Calling for just a handful of instruments and a small cast of singers, the piece unfolds in a series of taut, self-contained scenes that still conjure up broad vistas of emotion and moral ambiguity.
The finest aspect of West Edge Opera's new production, which opened a three-performance run on Saturday night at the Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School, is how deftly it handles the piece's combination of eerie turbulence and almost stifling claustrophobia. This is a ghost story in which the ghosts teeter provocatively at the edge of reality.
Like its source, Britten's opera tells the story of an unnamed Governess who is dispatched to a country estate to look after two young children, Miles and Flora. Their guardian, a wealthy man of the world, asks nothing more than not to be bothered with the details of their upbringing. (The premise is sketched out in a spare but lovely prologue.)
On arriving at the estate, however, the Governess discovers a world in which the corruption of innocence, a perennial theme for Britten, lurks everywhere. The ghosts of two former servants -- in particular the ominous Peter Quint, who according to the housekeeper "made free" with everyone, including young Miles -- hover around the grounds, exerting an ominous and ultimately fatal pull on the children.
The telling difference between James' version and the operatic libretto by Myfanwy Piper is that James -- telling the story from the Governess' point of view -- maintains a studied ambiguity about whether the ghosts actually exist or whether they are a projection of the Governess' moral nervousness. In the opera, Quint and his associate, Miss Jessel (the former governess), stand onstage and sing, which tends to make them as real as ghosts can be.
But the West Edge production, directed by Mark Streshinsky with canny video projections by Jeremy Knight, revisits this conundrum in telling fashion. Here, the ghosts have no corporeal presence; instead, they appear as shadowy images on a screen, singing clearly but flickering in and out of sight.
The projections, which also offer glimpses of the estate at Bly and flashbacks to Quint's long, slow seduction of Miles, are a splendid way of opening up the stage without betraying the essential compactness of the piece. And on Saturday, music director Jonathan Khuner led a performance that was both rhythmically crisp and expressively fluid.
Soprano Laura Bohn gave a superb performance as the Governess, probing deeply into the role's layers of heroism and unease while retaining a bright musical surface to everything she sang.
She had formidable counterparts in the struggle for the children's souls. Tenor Daniel Curran was a wonderfully unnerving Quint, singing Britten's keening, slippery vocal lines with the necessary precision and embodying the character's dark charisma even through the obscuring black-and-white camerawork. Mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott was a tonally lustrous and dramatically adept Miss Jessel.
The two children's parts -- famously challenging assignments for young singers -- were ably dispatched. Milo Boland (who alternates as Miles with Arman Marchiel) brought bright, piping sound and tonal precision to his role, although his pitch sometimes sagged in sustained notes. Larkin Barnard-Bahn (alternating with Amilia Meacham) was a fluent, dexterous Flora. As the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, Jillian Khuner sang with plenty of energy but tended to swallow her words.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: email@example.com
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