The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, like many other arts organizations, has been acknowledging the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth this past season — Britten was born Nov. 22, 1913 — putting on various works by this important English composer. This weekend the orchestra presented two concert performances of Britten's chamber opera "The Turn of the Screw."
Given the unusual demands of the work, this was a bold venture — perhaps too bold.
Premiered in Venice in 1954, the opera is an adaptation by Myfanwy Piper of the Henry James ghost story of the same name, a tale of unsettling ambiguities and subtle sexual allusions concerning a possibly unstable English governess and her attempts to defeat a pair of evil spirits and save the souls of the two children in her charge. It's a fragile, eerie but potentially powerful work that needs careful direction and an experienced cast. (Minnesota Opera presented the work in 1999.) Whether such an opera can be staged successfully in a concert hall — that is, with little or no staging at all — seemed a relevant concern.
And then, as the weekend approached, bad luck reared its head once again. Thomas Zehetmair, the conductor, had bowed out the prior week due to "exhaustion," and then just a few days later, the boy scheduled to sing the role of Miles canceled because of illness and was replaced by a female soprano.
The result Friday night at the Ordway Center was an earnest effort in which a gang of talented people worked hard and did their best, but the result didn't add up to much, or at least didn't deliver what this opera has the potential to deliver in dramatic impact and a buildup of tension.
Ghost stories thrive on atmosphere and illusion, but without sets and special lighting, those elements are hard to achieve. There is such a thing, of course, as scary radio drama — no sets at all — but they're written with that limitation in mind, whereas Britten and Piper meant this to be theater both intimate and extravagant, something disturbing — scary ghosts emerging out of a naturalistic background, an old mansion in Sussex. None of what happened onstage Friday night was very scary or thought-provoking, and as a result, Miles' death at the end failed to move.
To his credit, the director, Alan E. Hicks, moved his singers about the stage sensibly, if at times frantically, using the playing area in front of the orchestra and giving his singers five chairs to move from place to place as scene-setters.
Sara Jakubiak portrayed the distraught governess with ever-increasing intensity and sang with radiant tone. (In James' story, the reader is left with the possibility that the governess is hallucinating the whole thing.)
Thomas Cooley was a fierce, arrogant Quint, moving easily through the serpentine coils of Britten's score. (He also recited the Prologue.)
Tori Adams (Flora), Maria Zifchak (Mrs. Grosse) and Krista River (Miss Jessel) were excellent, as was Lucy Fitz Gibbon as Miles, though what Britten asks for, a boy's treble — so much more vulnerable-sounding than a female soprano — is better in this role. The substitute conductor, Jayce Ogren, drew a sparkling, smart performance from the 13-piece orchestra.
Despite whatever seemed wrongheaded in this effort, it's clear that music theater of various kinds is something orchestras everywhere might explore as an alternative to the stultifying sameness of their regular programming. In the case of "The Turn of the Screw," the Chamber Orchestra simply picked the wrong opera.
Michael Anthony writes about music.