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Maazel & Co. Make Impressive 'Turn'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

When he isn't conducting the New York Philharmonic or any of the other orchestras around the world where he is in demand, Lorin Maazel lives in baronial splendor on a 550-acre farm in Rappahannock County. And when he isn't relaxing in the pool or the Jacuzzi, or knocking down pins on his private bowling alley, he runs (with his wife) something called the Chateauville Foundation, which presented a performance of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Monday night.

The foundation, according to a note in the program, has the following mission: "to nurture children, foster art and reclaim the human spirit." That last bit, "reclaim the human spirit," seems a bit cranky. Reclaim it from what? And for whom?

But never mind. If the foundation aims to repo the human spirit through the production of chamber opera, more power to them. And, really, Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," based on the Henry James novella, is perfect material. It is an opera all about the contest for souls, played out in the realm of spirits (and it takes place on a beautiful country estate and involves children, two auspicious coincidences for the Chateauville Foundation).

The production was originally created for the Maazels' private theater back on the ranch, but it transferred well enough to the Terrace Theater -- and proved, among other things, that the Kennedy Center has a suitable hall for chamber opera and ought to make more use of it to that end.

The small orchestra, made up of skilled pre-professionals (read: super-talented young players about to land orchestral jobs), fit neatly into the pit, complete with grand piano and celesta. The stage, though small, was more than adequate for designer Caroline Kallon's set to create a sense of both intimate interiors and wide vistas. And the size of the whole space, with its some 500 seats, isn't much bigger than, say, Stockholm's 450-seat Drottningholm Theatre, perhaps the ideal space for baroque opera in the world.

The only pity of this performance is that it was a one-off deal, brought to the big city for a single evening and seen at the Kennedy Center before it had entirely jelled into something smooth and professional.

A few tweaks here and there, and a little more time spent adapting to the Terrace, and Maazel's forces would have held their own with most opera productions in Washington.

But the importance of this production is how it highlights the crying need for the addition of more chamber opera to the city's diet.

Chamber opera, like chamber music, exists (among other reasons) to remind big-time makers of big opera what the core meaning of the form is. In the case of opera, chamber opera reminds us of the importance of drama, character and interaction. Done well, it is an antidote to the blustery, stand-and-sing opera style into which so many large companies inevitably devolve. It is a purifying, refreshing form, like reading poetry after a Dickens novel.

There is more going on, under the surface, in Britten's 100-minute setting of the James tale than in whole bloated acts of Wagner. And Maazel's young singers captured it: the sexual tension, the ambiguity, the shifting sands of the plot (recast by librettist Myfanwy Piper), in which it's never clear whether the ghosts that haunt an isolated country estate are real or the figment of a frustrated governess's imagination.

James's original story is one of the great exercises in using language to create ambiguity, a ghost story that doesn't require the reader to believe in ghosts at all -- which, paradoxically, makes it all the creepier. The mysteries of the text can be resolved in any number of ways, attributed to delusions in this character or that, or simply taken at face value. The old principle of Occam's razor -- that the least complicated explanation is likely the best bet -- suggests that this story is about the sexual abuse of children, though even that doesn't clear up all the loose ends.

Piper made changes to the text, adding singing parts for the two "ghosts," a valet of dubious character and a young woman, both of them dead, or perhaps imaginary. This little change, and the focusing of the text, brings into high relief the issue of sexual abuse -- so much so that, with all its mention of "things not spoken of" and "secret desires," it makes a savvy listener, steeped in the Catholic Church scandals and the fear-mongering of programs like NBC's "Dateline" (which has made entrapping pedophiles regular nightly entertainment), blush at the obviousness of it all.

Only in the opera house can an audience politely watch and enjoy what is all but manifestly a romance between a young boy and a much older man, cloaked in the thinnest veil of literary obscurity. Britten made a specialty of this (see his "Peter Grimes," which adds murder to boy love), and for most of the last century nobody really cared (or noticed too inconveniently). It was all taken as something dark and mysterious, "not to be spoken of." Today, perhaps we should be grateful to see exactly the set of values and habits that allows sexual predation to flourish in repressed societies, preserved as if in amber in Britten's opera.

So, obviously, there was a big dramatic burden resting on the shoulders of the two youngest singers in this production, Tucker Fisher, a boy soprano who sang the role of Miles, and Jessica Moore, who took the role of his sister, Flora. Both were supremely accomplished. Fisher's clear and substantial treble voice captured the innocence and vulnerability of his character, and in his interactions with Quint (the ghost of a man with whom he may have had a romance, played by Jeffrey Lentz) suggested a daringly adult canniness about the unspoken connections. Moore was magnificent as well, reacting to the Governess's apparent delusions (only she can see the ghosts) with the fury of a child dragged unwillingly into the mental illness of an adult protector.

Anne Dreyer as the Governess, Michelle Rice as the housekeeper and Valerie Komar as the ghost of Miss Jessel were all nicely suited to and comfortable in their roles. None of these voices is big (yet), but big is exactly what chamber opera doesn't need. Instead, they were nuanced and sensitive, and they made their characters palpably real and believable. So too was Lentz, as Quint, who moved with a surreal stiffness that suggested that he was not really there -- which is the crux of the problem in "The Turn of the Screw."

But the real stars, unseen because they were in the pit, were the members of the small orchestral ensemble, who captured all the allusive emotional volatility of Britten's score. Maazel led them well, and perhaps he can be encouraged to undertake a more ambitious chamber opera series at the Kennedy Center.

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