The Turn of the Screw, Britten

Boston Lyric Opera

6th February, 2010

Lost and Found

“Pure. Evil. Tales from the dark side. Don’t say you weren’t warned” reads the promotional postcard for Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Underneath, in a smaller font size: “Introducing BLO’s Opera Annex – productions which are fully staged and designed for a found space outside the traditional theatre to offer a fresh approach to opera.”

In this era of “Saw” and “Hostel” movie franchises, BLO’s publicity department might be overdoing it a bit on the content warning. This production won’t make you scream or cause any white knuckles on armrests. Still, considering the company’s history of (very) traditional repertoire and stagings, this new Sam Helfrich production marks an exciting and, indeed, “fresh” development. It will be interesting to see how the “new” BLO plays out within the larger Boston opera world, where scrappy Opera Boston has occupied the roles of innovator and provocateur.

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Photos by: Jeffrey Dunn/Boston Lyric Opera

Mr. Helfrich and his design team smartly laid out the “found” space. The orchestra players were positioned within raised platforms where the action took place, a single corridor of stage traveled the width of the room and a large projection screen centered above all. The simple, evocative stage designed by Andrew Lieberman consisted of a black and white patterned floor, an antique wooden desk and a chair. The stage, as well as the audience, was situated at an angle to the room, making every stage view (literally) askance.

Mr. Helfrich’s stage direction was straightforward: geometric, polished and admirable for its economy. Entrances and exits were made mostly through a stairwell disappearing into the building’s lower floors (I was surprised the production didn’t make use of a prominent balcony above the stage). Helfrich’s vision was bolstered by strong visual contributions from costume designer Nancy Lear and lighting designer Aaron Black. The staging could be described as “traditional” were it not for video segments played throughout the show on the projection screen. The video showed the opera’s characters “off-stage”: Flora and Miles at play, Mrs. Grose asleep in a chair or tending to the children, the Governess worrying in bed when she should be sleeping—the kind of scenes that we are generally asked, as audience members, to imagine. The video also featured the opera’s two supernatural characters, Mr. Quint and Miss Jessell, at play (or, as Britten’s opera Peter Grimes puts it, at “their exercise”) with the children.

The video didn’t work for two reasons. First, aesthetically, it didn’t match the rest of the show’s design. The footage (a live feed?) was poorly lit (not dimly, just badly), and as a result it looked far removed from the softer, more carefully crafted stage picture. The video quality and style (stationary cameras with actors posed in front) was reminiscent of amateur porn or webcam performance, which could have been an effective comment on the opera’s subject as well as Britten’s well-known sexual tendencies, had it been echoed elsewhere in the staging. Second, the video didn’t reveal anything different than what we saw on stage; it was, ultimately, more of the same. Things spelled out – a character discussed on stage while the same character is seen on video – should be revelatory, not redundant. The video watered down the opera’s impact, leaving too little to the imagination.

The show benefited from very good singing. The best was from tenor Vale Rideout, whose vocal colors, dynamics and psychological intensity made an exceptional Prologue/Quint. Emily Pulley was an affecting Governess, singing securely and beautifully, though the very top register of her voice was unevenly produced. Kathryn Skemp as Flora was a standout; she may look like a teenager, but sings like an accomplished soprano. Other strong performances were Rebecca Nash as Miss Jessell and Joyce Castle as Mrs. Grose.

Conductor Andrew Bisantz led a well-crafted reading of Britten’s score. Sometimes orchestral details got lost in the room, which can be a downfall of “found” spaces. There was, throughout the performance, an echo that traveled to the far back of the hall. It worked for the piece, though, given the ghostly subject matter.

Bottom line: An exciting new turn in Boston.


John Costello


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Production Credits

Conductor: Andrew Bisant
Stage Director: Sam Helfrich 
Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman
Video Designer: Leah Gelpe
Costume Designer: Nancy Leary
Lighting Designer: Aaron Black


Prologue/Quint: Vale Rideout
The Governess: Emily Pulley
Flora: Kathryn Skemp
Miles: Aidan Gent (Feb. 3, 6)
Ryan Williams (Feb. 1, 5)
Mrs. Gross: Joyce Castle
Miss Jessel: Rebecca Nash