Los Angeles first encountered "The Turn of the Screw"--Benjamin Britten's stark, probing, ultimately poignant setting of Henry James' psychosexual ghost story--at UCLA in 1959. That was only four years after the world premiere at La Fenice in Venice.
In the campus production, a promising student named Maralin Niska explored the agonizing corruption of Victorian innocence in the central role of the Governess. Niska returned 16 years later when the opera received its first professional staging at the Music Center in a sketchy performance by the New York City Opera.
Then the troubling, fragile masterpiece disappeared from our stages for another 16 years. It finally reappeared on Saturday as the last installment of the Music Center Opera season. There was nothing sketchy about the production this time.
Roderick Brydon, who had overseen most of the saving graces of the company's "Idomeneo" in September, conducted Britten's intricate score with equal concern for theatrical force and expressive restraint. He savored the inherent tensions, defined nuances of color with careful point and luxuriated in the transparent instrumental textures mustered by 13 inspired virtuosos from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
The cast performed with rare dramatic credibility and vocal finesse. Ensemble virtues obviously were valued here.
Helen Donath enacted the distraught Governess with ever-increasing emotional intensity that stopped safely short of hysteria and sang with limpid, radiant tone that lost no purity under pressure. After three decades on the opera stage, she remains an extraordinarily resourceful, astonishingly youthful artist.
Jonathan Mack brought dramatic urgency and sinister sweetness to the stratospheric melismas of Peter Quint, the valet who returns from the dead to claim the soul of his former charge. Angelique Burzynski complemented him as a strikingly assertive, darkly insinuating Mrs. Jessel.
Nikolas Nackley, a sixth grader from Piedmont, Calif., captured the feverish ambiguities of Miles brilliantly. Eileen Hulse came from London to convey the sardonic innocence of little Flora with authentic childlike bravura.
Marvellee Cariaga found just the right tone of matronly sympathy for Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and Greg Fedderly sang the expository measures of the prologue with elegant simplicity.
The staging scheme, credited to Jonathan Miller and here reconstructed (one presumes faithfully) by David Ritch, was originally devised for the English National Opera in 1979. It is a very clever scheme that plays realistic, subtly motivated action against a setting predicated on modernist abstraction.
The scenery creates the only serious problem in the production. It reportedly aroused the disapproval of Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong collaborator who created both tenor roles in this opera, and one can understand his concern.
In place of the literal comforts of the old Sussex mansion dictated by the libretto and tradition, Patrick Robertson designed an ingenious, otherworldly unit set that utilizes a raked central platform flanked by walls of transparent panels.
Details of time and place are intentionally blurred. The panels accommodate constantly changing projections of distorted photographic images. They permit the figures of Quint and Mrs. Jessel, the apparitions that battle to possess the children at bourgeois Bly, to materialize and dissolve with convenient fluidity behind scrims.
Unfortunately, by making the opera seem surreal on all levels from the start, Miller and Robertson destroyed the essential contrast between the mundane and the supernatural. In this shadowy nightmare universe, everything looked spooky--not just the ghosts.
The interpretive miscalculation was bothersome. Still, it did not obscure the thoughtful nature of the production. Intelligent people were at work here, and they took both the music and the drama seriously. That isn't always the case in this most irrational of art forms.
The Music Center, not incidentally, dared perform the English opera without the redundant distraction of English supertitles. The seven well-matched singers enjoyed the audience's undivided attention, for a change, and articulated Myfanwy Piper's compact text with intimate, eerie clarity.
It was revealing, and it was refreshing.