‘Screw’ a tricky vocal turn

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The Kennedy Center’s intimate Terrace Theater was transformed into a mini opera house Monday evening when Lorin Maazel, the New York Philharmonic’s current music director, conducted a single performance of Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera “The Turn of the Screw.”

Presented under the auspices of the Kennedy Center’s Abe Fortas Memorial Fund for Chamber Music, “The Turn of the Screw” was produced by Mr. Maazel’s Chateauville Foundation, headquartered in Rappahannock County, Va. This new production — the organization’s first fully staged opera — features young artists who have been involved in the foundation’s mission “to nurture children, foster art, and reclaim the human spirit.”

Mr. Britten’s unusual 1954 opera is based on Henry James’ well-known vintage ghost story in which a harried governess attempts to protect her spooky young charges, Miles and Flora, against the predations of two vengeful and determined ghosts — both of whom, when alive, were employed in the same household. But is the perceived threat real? Or is our would-be heroine coming unhinged? The conclusion is famously ambiguous.

Mr. Britten’s score, set to a workmanlike libretto by Myfanwy Piper, is highly inventive, veering from near atonality to lush romanticism to eerie instrumental undercurrents that give the setting the feel of a 1950s mystery movie. While his use of shimmering percussion instruments is particularly effective, his occasional eccentric application of leaping intervals to unaccented syllables in vocal narrative lines — evident in many of his compositions for the human voice — can be strangely off-putting and difficult to sing.

For a relatively minimalist performance, the Chateauville Foundation’s production was a good one, musically. The understated set was effective, the costuming simple but elegant, the lighting evocative. The production was further enhanced by fine, tight instrumental playing under Mr. Maazel’s expert baton. The singing generally was excellent, although it was marred on occasion by muffled or indistinct diction. Fortunately, surtitles were available to help.

As the Governess, soprano Anne Dreyer employed a stratospheric yet bell-clear voice that was comfortably at home in the Terrace’s intimate space, although her diction was chancy and her acting largely limited to a single, distraught expression. Soprano Michelle Rice, in the smaller role of Mrs. Grose, possessed a full, mature tone as befitted her older character.

First as the Narrator and then as malevolent ghost Peter Quint, tenor Jeffrey Lentz turned in an outstanding interpretation, putting his supple voice and considerable dramatic talent to work to create a believable villain radiating palpable sexual menace. As his female counterpart, the ghost of Miss Jessel, mezzo-soprano Valerie Komar also was superb, wrapping her plummy, well-supported voice around the subtler threats emanating from her dark, depressive character.

As Miles and Flora, Tucker Fisher and Jessica Moore (both from the Greenwich, Conn., area) were poised and effective in their portrayal of James’ eerie children. Again, at times, diction proved to be an issue. Given the challenge of Mr. Britten’s scoring for these parts, the problem proved minor in the end.

Though this welcome production of “The Turn of the Screw” was polished from a musical standpoint, the acting of the ensemble, as a whole, did not infuse James’ psychologically complex characters with life. Granted, Mr. Lentz seemed at times to be channeling Peter Quint, and Miss Komar’s hauntings as Miss Jessel were effective, though darkly subdued. However, the rest of the cast needed to push a bit harder to grasp the inner workings of their respective characters. As future performances of this opera are a distinct possibility, a little work here will go a long way toward transforming a very good production into an outstanding one.

**

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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