Opera Review: Benjamin Britten's 'Turn of the Screw' at the Castleton Festival

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

CASTLETON, Va., July 5 -- When Lorin Maazel, 79, built his home theater here, about 60 miles from Washington, he probably didn't envision that he would be inviting quite so many people over to watch performances. A "home theater" for Maazel denotes not a private movie screen but an honest-to-goodness stage, orchestra pit and two levels of audience seating. And on Friday night, when he launched his Castleton Festival with a new production of Benjamin Britten's opera "The Turn of the Screw," he had a capacity audience of 140 people. Given both artistic considerations (the small size of the house limits the range of operas one can put on) and economic ones (at $50 to $80 per ticket, there is no way the enterprise can pay for itself), Maazel may well wish he had made his theater bigger to start with.

The Castleton Festival is an outgrowth of a training-workshop series Maazel has been running for several years: an alternative, you might say, to the Wolf Trap Opera (indeed, some of the singers are appearing at both festivals). The Maazels' 550-acre property is currently overrun with young singers, instrumentalists, directors and conductors (the latter will get to perform in public at orchestral concerts on Saturday and July 19 in a tent on the grounds). Even the technical staff has a layer of trainees; one of Maazel's sons, Orson, is an apprentice stage director. And three of the summer's four productions have already been presented here, most recently "Albert Herring," which opened in October.

The festival deliberately cultivates its sense of family, making a virtue of necessity; the small theater is entered through a catering kitchen that really does make it seem like someone's home, although the Maazels live in a separate building. The intimacy is an asset in controlling expectations: World-class musicians are certainly present at the festival in recitals and master classes, as well as in the pit, but the operas are still performed by young singers in a very small space. Nonetheless, "Turn of the Screw" made a considerable effect.

William Kerley, the house director, made all he could of the small space. He veiled the proscenium with a demure curtain that muted rather than obscured what lay behind it before drawing aside, keeping the scenes moving with the fluidity of film cuts (Nicholas Vaughan's moving set components helped maximize the scenic possibilities of the tiny stage). And he moved the action out into the theater: now on a walkway around the orchestra pit (which did double duty as a lake), now up into the balconies, where the spectral figures that dominate this Gothic ghost story (based on the Henry James novella) made their early and rather terrifying appearances.

The story, about a governess who comes to a large country house to care for two beautiful but strange children who have been strongly influenced by her predecessors, is inherently uncomfortable. Are there really ghosts, or are they all in her head? And what was the nature of the abuse the children endured before she came? Kerley allowed the discomfort to be fully present -- and created a couple of really hair-raising moments -- without subjecting the action to the fierce light of too much spelling-out.

The tiny theater is a mixed blessing for singers; it allows them maximum impact, but also leaves them cruelly exposed. The best members of Friday's cast turned this to an advantage, particularly the two singers who played the ghosts, Steven Ebel (Peter Quint) and Greta Ball (Miss Jessel), pale-faced and otherworldly and strong-lunged. Ebel furnished Quint's music with a terrifyingly asexual vocal quality that emerged in this small space with powerful heft, while Ball, despite occasional astringency, offered some of the biggest and most climactic sounds of the night. Against them, the Governess, as played by Charlotte Dobbs, was a figure of a uniform and slightly pale sweetness, with a consistently pretty voice to match. Rachel Calloway offered a reasonable mezzo, some odd diction and a Central Casting approach as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Vocally, Brian Porter's Prologue had considerable room for improvement.

It's always a question how to portray children onstage; here, Flora, usually portrayed as the younger of the two, was played by Kirby Anne Hall, a young singer who is at least through college, which made the character a manipulative young teenager rather than a half-innocent small girl. This put Harry Risoleo, the boy who played Miles, at a disadvantage in terms of audibility (children's voices don't often carry as well as trained adult ones), though the softness of his voice emphasized his vulnerability, particularly as the ghosts drew nearer and nearer to the stage.

Maazel retained his wonted hair-trigger control in the pit, but, perhaps because of the small space, the music didn't always jell. "Turn of the Screw" is in any case an opera filled with telling details, and those emerged clearly: a dark harp solo, the keening call of an oboe or the flick of the conductor's precise finger as he cued a singer in exactly the right place.

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