About a week before I went to Oakland Opera’s Turn of the Screw, I received an e-mail from them warning me that their location had changed, due to real estate shenanigans beyond their control. (And earlier this year, TheatreFIRST lost their storefront stage – does Oakland just not care about the arts? These places aren’t even real theaters to start with. Can’t the city do better than this? It looks as if they can't even hold on to their baseball team.) Good thing I’m semi-obsessive about e-mail and addresses; the new place is on 3rd Street rather than 2nd, but quite a few blocks further inside the abandoned warehouse district of Oakland right outside Jack London Square. I hope it works out for them. I guess most people will just drive there. But it’s far enough off the main street to give pedestrians from BART pause late at night. It’s a shame, because Oakland Opera continued its streak of excellent productions, and that’s where they should be putting their energies, rather than having to unlock streetside Port-a-Potties to use as restrooms or setting up more rows of folding chairs (making this possibly the most uncomfortable theater I’ve sat in, after Bayreuth). If you’re sitting there looking at a big pile of money and wondering what to do with it, you could do a whole lot worse than sending it Oakland Opera’s way.
I have rows of CDs and DVDs by Britten, even his version of The Beggar’s Opera, but no Turn of the Screw, which seems like an odd omission, so this was my first exposure to it in any form (Deirdre McClure was the conductor and was a wonderful advocate for the piece). The story’s combination of the corruption of innocence with an outsider’s struggle to find a place makes it pretty obvious Britten material. The setting was moved to the American South, which is a good idea because it connects with the whole Southern Gothic tradition, though it ended up not making a huge difference in the presentation (it’s possible the sudden change in venue was part of the reason). The outside settings are bayou-like, and the old housekeeper is, in keeping with the location, a black woman (Lori Willis acted an old woman quite convincingly, but her vibrant and supple voice beautifully undercut the illusion of age). I had wondered if Quint and Miss Jessel would also be black servants, but that creates the obvious problem of having blacks as the evil characters (more precisely, sexually evil characters), which may or may not be why the Opera didn’t pursue that possibility. The ghosts were played on stage by acrobats (I don’t know if my Jessel was Ena Starling or Emily Leap since the program doesn’t give dates for their appearances, but Danny Starling was Quint) occasionally suspended from harnesses, which sounds like a cumbersome gimmick but was surprisingly effective; as is usual in such cases, the apparatus was clearly visible but disappeared for all practical purposes in the intensity of performance. Quint in particular was such a long, lanky man that his physique added to the unearthly quality of the apparition. The ghosts were sung by Marta Johansen and Gerald Semintore; the whole cast was of excellent vocal quality, and though they had surtitles they were not really needed at all, given everyone’s clear diction.
I had always assumed that any theatrical adaptation of The Turn of the Screw would of necessity make the ghosts real and lose the ambiguity of the first-person narration (is it all real? or is the governess hysterically projecting her sexual fantasies onto the children?), but Myfanwy Piper’s libretto actually preserves quite a lot of the possibility that it is the governess who is the problem. Anja Strauss is lovely in the role, both physically and vocally, but I thought at first that she was bugging her eyes and holding the expression of horror a bit too long, as if she were calculating the performance for a much larger space; then I realized it was a legitimate reflection of the character’s growing mental problems. The children are quite striking; Piper very cleverly has them speak mostly in nursery rhymes, prayers, games, and lessons, which subtly sets them apart from the adults and conveys the primitive and playfully surreal violence of childhood. I saw Nick Kempen and Kelty Morash as the children; Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej play them at alternate performances. Kempen in particular was quite striking and obviously had vocal training; I don’t usually like the sound of boy sopranos but he shouldered his burden manfully and seems to be sort of specializing in the role, to the horror of the nice woman sitting next to me, a long-time opera-goer and academic, who announced to me that she wouldn’t have let her children perform the role. Kempen seemed to be suffering no ill effects, judging from his buoyant bio. He lives in Castro Valley, where I grew up, and I was amused to see he had shared the stage with my younger niece in a recent production there of The Wizard of Oz, another American classic of dispossession, alienation, supernatural horror, and the search for the place where one belongs.