L.A. Opera has done a terrific job this winter picking up productions from European opera houses. An inspired “Turk in Italy,” from Hamburg Opera, just concluded its run. And now comes a mesmerizing “The Turn of the Screw,” from Glydenbourne, with a truly remarkable cast. Henry James’ ghosts are alive, really sick and singing the bejesus out of Benjamin Britten’s powerful score.
James never had any success as a playwright, and yet his novellas “The Turn of the Screw” and “Washington Square” went on to have long life in the theater, thanks to this Britten opera and “The Heiress.” Augustus and Ruth Goetz blew out the latter tale of an embittered daughter. Britten stayed truer to James’ story of a governess who sees ghosts. But an opera is an opera, and in this one, the ghosts of Peter Quint (William Burden) and Miss Jessel (newcomer Tamara Wilson, a Brunnhilde in training) not only most definitely appear, they sing. What James merely suggests, Britten powerfully conveys in his music: When the ghosts sing to the children Miles (Michael Kepler Meo) and Flora (Ashley Emerson), it’s an erotic act. This production — directed here by Francesca Gilpin and originally staged by Jonathan Kent in Glydenbourne — leaves no doubt about that, having the encounter with the ghosts take place as Miles and Flora bathe for the evening. No wonder the Governess (Patricia Racette) is freaked.
In Britten’s world, there’s little doubt about the “bad” that took place between Quint and little Miles. Whether it’s all in the Governess’s mind or the boy’s is another story. But Britten gives Miles an obscene lesson in Latin to sing, as well as a piano ditty that soon descends into a mad ride on the ivories.
The 12-year-old Meo emerges as both child and man, and it’s an amazing performance. Emerson, an adult soprano, totally convinces as the young Flora. (Think Anika Noni Rose in the original “Caroline, or Change.”) Burden’s clear tenor possesses a sensual throb that takes his portrayal places that even the original Quint, Peter Pears, could not suggest. And Racette holds it all together by being alternately maternal, infatuated, hysterical, indignant, resolute.
Kent places this “Turn of the Screw” in the 1940s, which takes some getting used to. But in the end, repression is repression. Conductor James Conlon keeps it taut. Paul Brown’s simple box set is the perfect trap. Under David Manion’s eerie lighting, a floating slab of clear glass suggests a greenhouse, French doors and, most magically, a lake for Miss Jessel to float under and rise from.