Henry James' Gothic horror tale, "The Turn of the Screw," is a short, delicately calibrated tour de force. So is Benjamin Britten's operatic version of it. And so is the Washington Opera's new production, which opened Tuesday and will be repeated eight times this month.

It's paradoxical to use the word "genteel" to describe a story that irrevocably hurtles toward a horrible ending in which a child dies. But that's exactly the tantalizing tone with which James heightens his horror. This production captures it to perfection.

From the moment the Governess, sung and acted with force by Susan Peterson, arrives at a claustrophobic country mansion in the east of England, this drama percolates with pressure-cooker intensity.

Just as with James' writing, Britten's music is understated. Britten constructs some of his other tragedies -- "Peter Grimes," for instance -- on an almost epic scale. This, instead, is a chamber opera.

The orchestra has only 13 players, most of them wind performers, and there's a lonely aridity about its sound that's just right for the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

There's a touching side to this opera as well. The doomed boy, Miles, is almost ideally cast with 12-year-old Laurence Pittenger. The more beautifully the child sings and the more angelic he looks, the bitterer the impact. His little sister Flora, sung by the nine-year-old Ashley Leadbetter, is suitably vivacious.

Of the other performers, Dennis Bailey is distinguished in the dual role that Britten created for Sir Peter Pears -- as prologue reciter and Peter Quint. Barbara Hocher as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and Elizabeth Knighton, as the former governess, are also splendid.

Francois Rochaix's direction is superbly paced. Jean-Claude Maret's costumes and sets capture without fuss the spirit of country England. And John Mauceri's conducting is sylish and elegant. THE TURN OF THE SCREW: At the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater through December 28.