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Britten's "Turn of the Screw" and Tchaikovsky's Shakespeare Overtures Fill the Downtown Air with Musical Drama

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011, at 09:23AM
Robert Millard

William Burden and Patricia Racette in LA Opera's "Turn of the Screw"

A man lifts a pre-pubescent child from his bath, wraps him in a towel and the two commune. “I’m bad,” says the boy, as the man importunes him to leave the family home and go off together.

Simultaneously, the lad’s sister stands in frozen action, washing her hair in a sink. A lake-drenched woman, backlit so that she appears as a menacing cameo, enters and takes up with the girl.

This scene, which grows into a captivating quartet – surely no one in the audience breathes during its musical/dramatic suspense – is the high point of Los Angeles Opera’s “Turn of the Screw,” Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of Henry James’ most famous short story, which is not so much a ghost story here as an ambiguous search into how adults can corrupt children.

You see, the man, valet Peter Quint, and the woman, governess Jessel, are both dead. It’s their “ghosts” or imaginary beings that inhabit the children – as seen by the fretful but motherly replacement caretaker. That both Britten and James lived when being gay was considered criminal in England makes for compelling literature, drama and music. Much needed to be expressed artistically. It was. And especially in this deft, atmospheric production borrowed from Glyndebourne.

For starters, there’s the Jonathan Kent/Paul Brown staging, directed here by Francesca Gilpin. It frames the action in a delicate awning of small glass panes, glinting this way and that as they move. Behind it all lies an overturned tree, its branches bare and forlorn.

Then there’s the topnotch cast. William Burden – what an absolute treat to encounter him – sings Quint and is a tenor whose natural sound pours out with so much ease and beauty that it lands exactly smack in the middle of every note. However could Miles, the boy soprano sung by Michael Kepler Meo -- who also boasts the purest intonation and seeming effortlessness -- resist him? He draws his own canny portrait of an innocent, gradually turning into a suave tease who still cottons to the caring embrace of his current governess.

Patricia Racette, that governess, persuades us that her own anxieties could easily rub off on her charges, and even enlarges the idea of the powerful dead. She was matched often with the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, portrayed by Ann Murray, though, and the two voices bore little contrast to each other, giving a downside to long passages sung fullout at high tessitura. (I think Britten would have wanted to make some adjustments!)

Not so for Ashley Emerson, Miles’ sister Flora, who sang with girlish loveliness, nor for Tamara Wilson who managed not only a dark sound as Miss Jessel, back from the dead, but a stalking manner as well.

James Conlon got his 13 orchestra players to enliven every key point, implication and thrust in the score – though, perhaps, without the occasional wispy eerieness that such a chamber opera might ask for at a venue smaller than the 3,200-seat Pavilion, with its vast space to fill.

But adding to this we did have grand-scale music drama --Tchaikovsky/Shakespeare -- in another full weekend downtown, thanks to Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Philharmonic and assorted thespians enacting roles from the Bard’s plays (“Hamlet,” “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet”), for which the great Russian composer wrote the overtures we heard.

Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing was simulcast to movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada? Well, if you wanted to actually hear the actors’ words -- and see those irresistible rehearsal snippets, etc. with Dudamel, the simulcast it was. Otherwise, according to colleagues attending the concert in Disney Hall itself, the sonics there predictably delivered a wowzer. You just can’t get this ultra-clarified stuff via the blown-up amplification system of an AMC, for example. Get thee to Disney.

So, other than the boys (and girls) in the band led by their beloved young maestro, who shone brightest? Why, the as-yet undiscovered Welshman Matthew Rhys, who had us hanging on Hamlet’s lines as though they’d never been spoken before, so originally and powerfully did he embody them. (And, pardon me, his day job – TV’s “Brothers & Sisters” – simply hides this enormous talent).

Orlando Bloom and Anika Noni Rose portrayed the star-cross’d lovers with fresh exuberance, while Malcolm McDowell sort of phoned it in, the only one who read his lines. Fie. But the day belonged to Dudamel and the Phil – they brought glory galore, sensitive underpinnings included, to theatrical Tchaikovsky. May we keep wallowing in their musical extravaganzas.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.


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