The Berkshire Opera Co. purchased the first home of its own two years ago, the 1905 vaudeville (then movie) house known as the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, Mass. Its first full production in it is Benjamin Britten's 1954 chamber opera "The Turn of the Screw," adapted from the classic Henry James tale.
The Berkshire Opera Co. purchased the first home of its own two years ago, the 1905 vaudeville (then movie) house known as the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, Mass. Its first full production in it is Benjamin Britten’s 1954 chamber opera “The Turn of the Screw,” adapted from the classic Henry James tale.
The production may have been a bit premature: The theater lacks air conditioning (it was uncomfortable on opening night), and it still requires extensive renovation, although it is potentially an excellent opera house. Nevertheless, the production is musically impressive and shows off the house’s spacious intimacy; large stage and orchestra pit; and warm, clear acoustics.
Calling it a “full” production may be stretching things, however. Presumably for budget reasons, Britten’s remarkable work is performed on an essentially set-free stage. The rear wall is revealed, with old-fashioned wings suggesting woods on either side. Lighting, fog and a few props and pieces of furniture are used, imaginatively, to suggest outdoors and indoors.
A single strip of blue neon across the rear wall is an effective substitute for a lake, and shadows, particularly those of young Miles sitting on his bed, are cleverly manipulated. Autumn leaves cover the stage at one point, remaining there for later indoor scenes. This fits in well with the tale’s eerieness.
Director Ron Daniels, associate artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., has wisely allowed the opera to be the driving directorial force, opting mostly for simplicity in his staging. Unfortunately, this staging lacks any real aura of haunted mystery. What’s more, Daniels is unable to weld its two acts and 16 scenes into a seamless whole rather than a series of individual scenes, in part because the front curtain is lowered between every scene, which doesn’t always seem to be necessary for prop-changing reasons.
Also, the lack of any actual scenery with gauzy scrims means that the spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are often all too corporeal. Yet within these limitations, Daniels and his cast have achieved real musical and theatrical dividends.
Director makes good use of one of the theater’s front boxes. It’s from here that the Prologue is strongly sung by tenor Carl Halvorson, who goes on to be a splendid Peter Quint, vocally and visually. Here, too, are visions of the ghostly Quint and Miss Jessel (the latter vividly performed by Elizabeth Shammash).
Soprano Jennifer Aylmer’s Governess may look a bit more mature than usual but is nevertheless strongly projected, though she is hard put to live up to the wonderfully solid mezzo Mary Ann McCormick as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.
As Miles, boy soprano Trevor Kaplan-Newman seems small voiced to begin with but goes on to rise to his role’s demands like a real pro, particularly in his Malo song, though he just misses the chilling dramatic impact of his final scream before dying — “Peter Quint, you devil!” Adult soprano Ilana Davidson is suitably youthful as Miles’ older sister, Flora.
Not surprisingly, the dramatic high point is the powerful aria “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” sung first by Halvorson, then joined by Shammash.
Under Joel Revzen’s assured baton, the 13-member chamber orchestra plays, as it must, like a group of individual soloists working closely together. That’s a good thing, since the acoustics and the pit leave them highly exposed. The only problem here was that Revzen and the players sometimes misjudged their soft playing to the point where it almost faded away.
The Berkshire Opera has a long way to go with its fund-raising and its renovation of the Mahaiwe. But its firmly established reputation for quality opera has not been tarnished by its first production in its new home. And, thankfully, air conditioning is promised for the 19th season next summer.