Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Turn of the Screw

Photograph: © 2011 Richard Termine

by Benjamin Britten
New York City Opera
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House

City Opera itself is in a spiraling, steep fiscal decline and so it was almost improbable to remember that an opera company in decline can still do great opera. They have made difficult decisions and ambitiously scaled back their season in every way (venue, number of productions, etc.), but they are still alive and performing well and worth going out to see.

This afternoon out was also a good reminder that secondary opera companies in major cities have a place and a very valid raison d'être as they often compete for subscribers by being a little more hip, looking more alive and most importantly performing works that you will likely only see once or twice in your lifetime. Carmen and Madame Butterfly will be performed every other year by the major opera companies, but House of Usher and Turn of the Screw and less-performed works will show up at these less-entrenched opera companies and almost never at the big houses. I think this is a valuable offering in the bigger cities.

I think that The Turn of the Screw, based on a book by Henry James is not as often performed as Peter Grimes or other Britten operas for a few reasons. First, it has more of the feel of an operetta - in cast size, length and tone. Additionally, it comes packaged with one of the worst librettos in opera history. If you haven't read the book (I have not) - good luck in following this story. Sure, you got a sense of the story, but you were also left to wonder what the heck was really going on here, knowing you were skimming the surface and many, many good, informative details were being left out.

The singing in this production was fine, with special notes of appreciation for Dominic Armstrong who played Peter Quint and Benjamin P. Wenzelberg who played the young Miles. Armstrong has the sort of voice that excels in more modern repertoire, like Stravinsky, Adams and, well, Britten. And, with Wenzelberg - you spent half the day pondering where they found someone so young who was so immensely talented. By singling these two out, I don't want to say that the rest of the cast wasn't wonderful. They were. But, these two created joy in the afternoon.

You go to the opera to listen. I used to go to the symphony regularly, but then I started listening to opera and now it is difficult to find the time. Because opera is like the symphony, but with voices and story and visual wonder. However, no matter what happens on stage, no matter what is being performed, no matter what the story - whether it is good or bad is entirely dependent on the ears. All to say, this opera was wonderful. Now, let's talk about the sets.

The sets were trendy. That's the best I can say. But, in being trendy I think they were a bit cliché. I think I have seen some of the set elements a thousand times before, such as the cut-out door frames and the excessive use of vaguely symbolic lighting. Additionally, the set was a little small for the stage that it was on. And, if in addition to vaguely symbolic I can add overly symbolic to the list of things wrong with it, I will. Now, if I did not go to the theater regularly, I probably would not have even noticed, paid attention or thought twice about it. But, having seen too much, having been spoiled too much - the set was too much. If I had the privilege of being director for a minute, I would have gotten rid of the bean bag, too.

I've also had to update some thoughts on BAM after seeing/hearing this opera. When we went to the Paul Simon concert a few years ago and sat in the balcony the acoustics were absolutely the worst ever, anywhere. Then, we went back for a Brooklyn Philharmonic concert and sat downstairs and they were fine and I thought it was the difference between upstairs and downstairs. But, I was back in the balcony for this and - you know what - it was a Paul Simon problem. The people who organized that concert simply mishandled the sound. The hall is totally fine. And, actually quite appropriate for City Opera. 

And, actually, writing of that - I think a valid way forward for this organization would be to take up full-time residency at BAM and rename the group Brooklyn Opera and move forward as a borough group instead, with wider appeal. After all, Brooklyn is in ascendancy and the time might be ripe for a move like this.

No comments: