Ghosts appear in many operas, but nowhere else with the special chill of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw." Based on the Henry James novelette of the same name, it tells of a struggle for the souls of two children, Miles and Flora, in Victorian England. The struggle is between two living women (the housekeeper and governess) and the ghosts of the former valet, Peter Quint, and the former governess, Miss Jessel, who practiced some unspecified kind of abuse on the children.
"Things have been done here that are not good, and have left a taste behind them," sings the new governess, narrator of the story, which may be a product of her hyperactive imagination. The music, exquisitely intricate even for an arch-artificer like Britten, evokes a lot of the opera's atmosphere and action independent of the words -- fortunately because, in the opening-night performance of a new production at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the words were often hard to make out.
The distribution of voices in this opera is unusual; Quint's high tenor is the lowest voice heard, and the treble emphasis contributes to the unearthly atmosphere. A special casting problem is that of finding children with good voices and the mature acting skills necessary to play Miles and Flora. The Peabody Opera Theatre doubled the problem by having two casts, but simplified it by giving the role of Miles to girls, who do not lose their high notes as they mature. In the opening-night cast, which sings again tonight, Melinda Zagarino filled the role effectively, with an epicene grace that fits the story well. Marci Daniels was charming as Flora, and Elizabeth Knauer, as Miss Jessel, was enough to make your hair stand on end in some scenes.
Julianne Borg, as the governess, had the most impressive voice and stage presence. Timothy Bentch (Quint) sang and acted quite well, but had trouble competing with the memory of Peter Pears in that role. Laura van Teeple gave a capable performance in the supporting role of Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.
Visually, the Peabody production is simple but effective. Its permanent element is a tower that can signify anything from a church to a classroom or a bedroom depending on its placement and accessories -- a bed, a table, a few tombstones. The costumes are excellent, and Roger Brunyate's stage direction is thoughtful and expertly coordinated with the music, which is ably directed by Gene Young.
On opening night, the Peabody's Friedberg Concert Hall was less than half full; Britten has not yet found the operatic audience he deserves in the Washington-Baltimore area. The acoustics were very lively without bodies to absorb vibrations, and the 13-piece student orchestra had a splendidly rich tone. Unfortunately, the acoustics also blurred words sung above mezzo-forte. If it cannot fill the house, the company must learn how to project clearly in a half-empty one.