Getting your gooses bumped and your spine chilled

Publication Date: Friday May 29, 1998

Getting your gooses bumped and your spine chilled

West Bay Opera's adventuresome staging and set design helps produce a spooky winner with "The Turn of the Screw"

by Michael J. Vaughn

West Bay Opera has come up with a mesmerizing, visually voracious production of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," thanks in large part to the company's continued risk-taking in the areas of staging and set design. When J. Wingate Greathouse appears behind a stage-wide screen to deliver the Prologue, the device is logical; the figure appears in shadow, and the screen serves to augment his anonymity.

When the screen remains in place during subsequent scenes, however--as the nameless Governess (Stacy Rigg) journeys to her mysterious assignment in the country--the device becomes a little distressing, taking away that much-valued immediate contact between audience and performer and seeming to turn the Lucie Stern stage into a very large television.

Little do we know how important that screen is going to be. The Governess eventually discovers an evil connection between her two young charges, Miles and Flora (Jesse Lampert and Diane Squires), and a couple of ghosts who make their initial appearances as grotesquely unfocused video phantoms projected onto that screen. Later, when the two children begin to conduct eerie little conversations with their afterlife pals, the ghostly responses are restated in supertitle form on the screen in front of them, and seem to dance around their heads like poltergeist butterflies.

The effect is captivating, and is further intensified by John G. Rathman's back-wall windowframe projections and Jean Francois-Revon's dangling windows and flyaway staircases--a household literally drifting into pieces.

Henry James' ambiguously spooky tale is perfect for Britten, who in 1954 had not gone completely over to the randomized 12-tone row, but effectively manipulated its inherent dissonance and chromaticism to project unspoken terrors into his characters' thoughts.

David Sloss's orchestra treated Britten's score with great focus and intensity. My own favorites were Michelle Caimotto and Karen Sremac's alto flute/bass clarinet duet during Miles' bedtime scene (followed by a storm of pizzicatos as the ghost Quint urges Miles to steal his Governess's letter), and, much earlier, Don Baker's percussion accompaniment to the Governess's initial musings about her forthcoming job.

Stacy Rigg plays the Governess with a "freaked-out" right out of "The X-Files" and a great ability to project her character's inner turmoil. She also shows a good touch with her piano lines--but needs, conversely, to pull back a little on the fortes; though that drilling top note is perfect for the subject matter, by evening's end it begins to grate.

Tenor Greathouse makes a great, sleazy villain out of Quint, luring Miles toward the netherworld with his signature lyric runs. The rest of the cast--mezzo Elspeth Franks as the self-deluding maid, Mrs Grose; treble Lampert and soprano Squires as the children, and soprano Ellen St. Thomas as Miss Jessel, the Governess's ill-fated predecessor--is similarly strong, especially in diction; even with Britten's strenuous score, most of the English dialogue was clear, and the hard-hit consonants served to further accentuate the spooky atmosphere.

The real key to the production, however, is the compelling vision of stage director Jonathon Field--and the delicious manner in which he and his crew carry it out. If you are not averse to Britten's glorious dissonance (and believe me, and the many subscribers who walked out at intermission, it is an acquired taste), West Bay's "The Turn of the Screw" is the place to go to get your gooses bumped and your spine chilled.

What: West Bay Opera presents "The Turn of the Screw"

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 29 and 30; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 31

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

How much: Tickets are $15-$30

Information: Call 424-9999 

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