Tag Archives: The Turn of the Screw

The Debut of the Castelton Festival

            The Castleton Festival, which gave its official premiere performances this weekend, immediately enters into big league contention because of the man who founded it: Lorin Maazel. On Friday evening, he was also the conductor for a performance of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and you can say that he is the official host of the festival as well, given that it takes place on Maazel’s private, Rappahannock County estate.

            The 79-year-old, outgoing music director of the New York Philharmonic, is clearly thinking about legacy. “Alongside his prodigious performing activity,” says the program, “Maazel has found time to work with and nurture young artists, based on his strong belief in the value of sharing his experience with the next generation(s) of musicians.” And so he has built the ultimate amenity for an aging maestro’s house: A 130-seat, fully functioning opera theater, complete with orchestra pit and professional lighting. One imagines him in his bathrobe, late at night, silently conducting spectral performances of Parsifal.

            The festival is devoted to young artists, some already singing professionally, others still studying or working their way through young artists programs. The orchestra is made up of young players from the Royal College of Music, in London. Although for the past few years Maazel has been hosting singers at his home for occasional opera workshops and small productions—he brought a staged performance of the same opera to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre in 2006—this season marks the inauguration of the festival. There will also be performances of Britten’s Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia, and, in a newly erected festival tent, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (as arranged by Britten).

            That’s a lot of Britten, and no one’s complaining. But after sitting through another bumpy  Turn of the Screw, it’s worth putting something on the record: Just because they are chamber operas doesn’t mean that they should be left entirely to young singers. The cast on Friday evening did an admirable job, and there are several fine vocalists among its members. But it left one pining to hear this opera done with fully-fledged artists.

            Maazel’s quaint but tiny opera house made it difficult for Britten’s opera to cast its atmospheric spell. Based on the psychologically  complex (or obtuse) story by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw is a series of increasingly disruptive atmospheric disturbances in what might otherwise be a sunny, bucolic month in the country. A young governess entrusted with two young children finds that they are not so innocent as they seem; but in pursuing the truth of past events at Bly house, she ends up in a fatal contest with the children, and with the spirits that seem to dominate them.

            Britten’s music is vague and nervous, full of premonitions, with vocal lines that are suggestive rather than fully melodic. As in his other operas, musical themes that are essentially diegetic—snatches of nursery rhymes, or dimly remembered songs from within the narrative world of the opera—become organizing elements, and give the score its most satisfying moments. They also offered the singers something to hang on to, as in a pleasingly bumptious performance of “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son,” or the mysterious “Malo” melody that helped ground the singer portraying the governess at the opera.

            The moods of the piece were hard to sustain in the tiny theater, in part because Turn of the Screw requires a constant play of interior and exterior space. Portentous things are dimly seen through windows; nature laps at the door of the house, bringing with it both solace and sinister forces. Bly is the sort of building that ghosts can rattle around in, and to enter into the fundamental mystery of the piece—is the governess really seeing ghosts, or is she just bats?—you have to believe in an architecture large enough to play games with shadows and noises.

            The production played out on a small set, painted all black, with a few doors, a large window cut in the center, and enough wainscoting to suggest the vintage and elegance of a country estate. But the singers were constantly on top of each other, and despite William Kerley’s stage direction, efforts to create smaller psychological spaces within the already limited stage space didn’t work very well. The ghosts of Miss Jessel (Greta Ball) and Peter Quint (Steven Ebel) sang, at times, from the back and sides of the small auditorium, which helped enlarge the playing field. But mostly one felt the theater and the claustrophobically dark set was hampering the drama—leaving one unsure of the progress of events and the physical relation between characters—rather than intensifying it.

            The dry acoustic of the theater exposed voices unmercifully. And not just voices. The violin sound needed more resonance to take on luster and warmth, and the orchestra, though polished, often sounded smaller than its 13 accomplished players. The acoustic also exacerbated problems common to productions comprised of young singers: The wide range of voice sizes, the spectrum of vocal quality, the varying use of vibrato, and the natural uncertainties of individual voices not yet fully developed. No two of the singers sounded very good together—particularly problematic in the dialogues between the governess and the housekeeper—though in larger passages for four voices and orchestra, the opera began to come together and work its usual power.

            Much depends, of course, on the governess, sung by soprano Charlotte Dobbs, who has a sweet voice and a sure sense of pitch. Dobbs was psychologically most compelling early in the opera, when she captured the uncertainty and expectation of the young teacher and caretaker. Vocally, she showed an extraordinary flash of richness and resonance in a brief arioso passage from the second act, when she begins to compose a critical letter to her employer. This fleeting moment of something deeper and more intuitively sung made one wish that she felt more comfortable throughout the rest of the role.

            The mind of the governess is meant to be a mystery—to the audience, perhaps even to herself. Dobbs knows the beginning of the part, the innocence and fresh hopes, and she knows the end of the part, the tragedy and loss. And musically she knows the whole thing. But there is work to be done understanding the psychological progress of the character, the doubt and certainty, the meddlesome curiosity, the groping towards ideas and the reckless imposition of a flawed understanding. It will be exciting to hear Dobbs’ voice when it is deployed with more abandon, and from within a deeply felt dramatic understanding of the governness.

            The most gratifying singing came from soprano Greta Ball, as Miss Jessel. Ball has a large voice, and in the small theater, a sometimes edgy one. But it is a real instrument, professionally and confidently used and in service of a sound dramatic conception of the role.

            Soprano Kirby Anne Hall sang Flora, one of the two children at Bly, though Hall is already an adult. She has a very light voice but was vocally credible as a child, and she did a good job capturing the scheming side of Flora’s character. Unfortunately, Hall rather dwarfed young Harry Risoleo, who sang Miles with a delicate treble but clarity and confidence. His Miles was updated with mannerisms borrowed from the repertoire of rolling eyes and bored detachment of contemporary kids. As Peter Quint, the man who has very obviously sexually abused Miles, Steven Ebel found a creepy power in the long melismatic flourishes with which Quint calls to boy and asserts his ghostly presence. Rachel Calloway, as Mrs. Grose, proved a strong and developing mezzo-soprano, and she had a fluttering and daffy charm as the housekeeper who first embraces the governess, and then begins to doubt her sanity.

            The new Castleton Festival is located only an hour and a half from Washington, and it is a welcome arrival. The Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC and the Glimmerglass Festival, in Cooperstown, NY, are both a long drive for the opera deprived. A major opera festival in Rappahannock County would be a huge boon for the area. But Castleton is a festival designed more for its participants than for its audience. The theater is adorable and proof of some endearing eccentricity in Maazel. But it is a teaching studio rather than a real opera theater, and based on this Turn of the Screw—and the 2006 production which worked far better in the larger space at the Kennedy Center—it’s unlikely that Castleton can grow into an audience-friendly festival without rethinking its venue.

            Still, it’s early in the history of the Castleton Festival and who would pass up a chance to see opera made on a domestic scale, in a famous maestro’s home, with surprisingly bad art on the walls? And the point of the festival is professional development, not the ideal rendering of the works of Benjamin Britten. A crystal ball would be nice: To know where the festival goes from here. But this sort of restlessness—to see it grow bigger, better, more adventurous and broader—is a critic’s restlessness, and for good reason, it may not be on the agenda at Castleton.


For more reaction to the festival please check out my colleague Anne Midgette’s review in The Washington Post, and ionarts reviewer Charles Downey’s take on the web.

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