The Western New York Chamber Orchestra and the Fredonia State College School of Music are collaborating this week to bring us "The Turn of the Screw," Benjamin Britten's opera based on the creepy story by Henry James.
The first of two performances took place Friday in Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and it was riveting. Director Julie Newell described the production as semi-staged, but it is as satisfying as if it were fully staged.
Minimal sets work well with this chamber drama. The Victorian costumes are as good as you will see anywhere. The singers -- students, as far as I could make out -- had excellent acting abilities as well as vocals. The orchestra musicians, all functioning as individuals, kept the accompaniment taut and thrilling.
"This is incredible music Benjamin Britten has brought us," announced Newell, introducing the opera. The music is, in many instances, the star of the show. The orchestra speaks what the singers cannot. When the atmosphere grows uneasy, you hear it in the music's restless pulse.
The music differentiates one character from another. From the start, the production kept up a good pace. The prologue, sung by James Judd, had an ominous quality, as it should. His voice was loud and clear.
Acoustics were a problem, as I worried they would be. You encounter this problem a lot with operas in English -- they may as well be in a foreign language, because it's so hard to make out the words. And a church, pretty much any church, guarantees lots of echoes.
But the uninitiated could go by the synopsis in the program. And in a way, this hazy, spooky story lent itself well to blurry acoustics.
The Governess (Myriah Marsh) projected her fear and her good cheer very well in her first scene. The echoes made it sound just a little bit off, which was not a bad thing. The bedeviled children, Miles (Anna Atwater) and Flora (Kateri Gormley), were a little chipper for my taste in their first few appearances.
You could also quibble with Miles being played by a woman. There are those who insist the role has to be sung by a boy soprano, and there is a case to be made for that viewpoint.
Still, the production had the uncompromising tone that this drama calls for. There was no slack. When the evil Peter Quint (Ethan DePuy) appeared, I got a chill. He and the ghost of Miss Jessel (Yui Shimasaki) looked ghoulish, and projected it in their voices, too. All the voices were strong and good and everyone was intense.
Atwater filled the famous, haunting "Malo" song with an impressive sense of the otherworldly.
The finale to Act I was like a good horror movie: satisfying and horrifying. This opera delivers.
Kudos to the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Glen Cortese, for pulling this off. There was so much to praise: the witty sparkles and shimmers that accompanied Miles' bows and Flora's curtsies, the nervous flute that mirrored the Governess' fears, the ominous viola and percussion.
The production held together, all of it, in a way that was impressive and engrossing. You don't often get to see this opera live.
"Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw"
Friday evening in Holy Trinity Church and Tuesday in King Concert Hall, Fredonia State College.