For “The Turn of the Screw” to work, the opera company has to create a real sense of creepiness; Seattle Opera’s production succeeds, steadily building tension and a sense of uncertainty. Its spookiness will delight some fans but — warning — may turn off those sensitive to its central theme.
With some operas, the audience may struggle to stay emotionally involved in the story playing out on stage. But during parts of Seattle Opera’s “The Turn of the Screw,” you may need to reassure yourself that this is only fiction.
In Benjamin Britten’s opera — with libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the 1898 Henry James novella — an absentee guardian hires a governess to care for his orphaned young nephew, Miles, and niece, Flora. He tells her not to bother him — any problems that arise are hers to solve. After the governess arrives at his country house, she notices the children behaving strangely and realizes they’re falling under the sway of the house valet, Peter Quint, and their former governess, Miss Jessel — both of whom happen to be dead.
On opening night, soprano Elizabeth Caballero played the new governess with a sense of youthful determination. Her spirited singing and warm vibrato combined passion with an increasing vulnerability as her character grows unsure whether she can defeat the ghosts, after all.
Her only ally, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, may or may not help her. Trapped in a situation she has no authority to fix, she’s in denial. Yet in Maria Zifchak’s portrayal, we see her hope emerge. Zifchak is so convincing as a dowdy middle-aged woman who knows her station in life and is afraid to overstep those bounds, that her clear and elegant mezzo soprano voice comes as a lovely surprise, and (we hope, for her sake) a reflection of an inner strength.
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For “Turn of the Screw” to work, the company has to create a real sense of creepiness as the governess is dragged into a nightmare where she can’t trust herself or anyone else. And Seattle Opera’s production, directed by Peter Kazaras, succeeds, steadily building tension and a sense of uncertainty.
It starts with Britten’s relatively spare, elegant composition — no overtures, no chorus, and only 13 musicians in the pit. Each of those instruments plays its own key role in depicting a given mood.
One of the most effective things about Seattle Opera’s production is the set, a mix of traditional staging elements and digital projection. Video projection can make or break an atmosphere, and in this case it makes it, turning the mansion into a haunted house full of staring portraits and foreboding hallways. The shifts in perception here are real, as the set reflects the alternating clarity and confusion in the governess’ mind.
The singing helps, too. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to play Peter Quint than Ben Bliss, whose presence lends a sense of menace about to pounce. As one target of his abuse, Miss Jessel (Marcy Stonikas) displays a different kind of malice — that of a miserable creature who wants someone to suffer along with her.
The young singer playing Miles has a crucial task: believably portray a boy striving to appear normal on the surface but roiling underneath. On opening night, Rafi Bellamy Plaice’s angelic choirboy treble made all the more stark the contrast with the wickedness enveloping him. (Forrest Wu will alternate in the role.)
“Turn of the Screw” asks deep questions, many ultimately unanswered: What is real, and what is perception? When do we disobey orders if we think they’re wrong? And what makes a child “go bad,” if there’s even really such a thing? And why have so many people died on that country estate?
This opera isn’t for everyone. Its spookiness will delight some fans but — warning — may turn off those sensitive to its central theme, which could crudely be boiled down to child abuse.
But for those who can’t get enough of gothic horror at this time of year, it could make a welcome addition to the usual haunted-house horror-movie Halloween fare.
“The Turn of the Screw,” by Benjamin Britten. Through Oct. 27; Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $59-$204; 206-389-7676, seattleopera.org