Review: “Turn of the Screw” @ New York City Opera

ImageIt could be said that 12-tone operas and ghost stories are a match made in heaven. The New York City Opera plays their heavenly matchmaker with its eerie production of Benjamin Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Engaging and well-cast, it is brilliantly executed.

The chamber opera, based on the novella of the same name by Henry James, tackles the gravid themes of corrupted innocence, the supernatural, mental illness, pedophilia, and good versus evil. Originally set in mid-nineteenth century, director Sam Buntrock charmingly sets this production in the 1970-80’s replete with bean bag chairs, a console television, Star Wars posters and action figures, plus period hair and costumes.

The opera opens with the Prologue (Dominic Armstrong) singing of an unnamed Governess (played by Sara Jakubiak) hired to be the sole caretaker for two orphaned children who live with their absent uncle in a beautiful English country home. The orphans’ handsome and worldly uncle is never home and is preoccupied with work in London and charges the Governess not to bother him under any condition. So overwhelmed by his charm and power, she acquiesces to enter “a strange world for a stranger’s sake” and agrees to the unusual terms. Armstrong’s rich and haunting tenor voice immediately sets the tone for an ominous and eerie two hours to follow.

That “strange world” quickly turns from foreign to fiendish when it becomes clear that the initially idyllic home is haunted by the demonic specters of former valet Peter Quint (also Armstrong) who was killed in an accident on an icy road, and former governess Miss Jessel (Jennifer Goode Cooper) who mysteriously died after fleeing her job when she became pregnant.

The Governess learns from Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, (Sharmay Musacchio) that Quint was a wily and manipulative deviant who sexually terrorized Miss Jessel and the entire estate. “He had a way of twisting them around his little finger,” she said. He particularly had a taste for the Governess’ young charge, Miles (Benjamin Wenzelberg), an unsettling and depraved pursuit that continues even after his death. This ghostly beguilement and the subsequent mental breakdowns and aggravations of both Miles’ sister, Flora (Lauren Worsham) and the Governess comprise the brunt of the opera until the tragic and poignant end.

Britten composed the opera using the 12-tone technique pioneered by the composer Arnold Schoenberg which utilizes all 12 notes of the chromatic scale and creates equality among all pitches, thus producing an atonal sound by omitting a key signature. This has the effect of creating dissonance and discord. In the style typical of Britten, “Turn of the Screw” is mostly at home in the 12-tone style but forays into traditional tonality for some gorgeous melodies. Many times an atonal composition can lose an audience because of its academic esotericism and lack of lyricism, but Britten uses it to perfectly compliment the horror story and pull the audience deeply in.

This cast is fantastic. Armstrong sends shivers up the spine as he deliciously revels in the debauchery and filthiness of Quint. His voice is boisterous and strong, yet has an ethereal quality that fits his character perfectly. Act two opens with Armstrong breathing only one word, “Miles,” in a series of adroit runs, embellishments, and glissandos in a desperate seduction that makes an innocuous name seem downright obscene but breathtaking in its sheer depravity.

Jakubiak delivers a tremendous performance as she evolves from a modest and naïve governess into one determined and maternally fierce as evil touches her life and threatens the children she cares for. She has a full timbre to her voice that moves with effortless dexterity and fills the hall. Musacchio shines as the housekeeper with impressive acting chops and a rich contralto voice that luxuriates in the lower tones of her register.

The children add a rambunctious and ebullient energy covering seemingly every inch of the stage as they run around the set and flop about the furniture, acting as the cheerful antithesis to everything else in the opera. Worsham’s clarion coloratura voice seems to burst out of her petite frame with ease and aplomb, and the thirty-year-old singer’s portrayal of a child is simply astonishing. The stand-out of this first-rate cast is the precocious Wenzelberg. At only 13, his perceptiveness exceeds many adults. His deep and multi-faceted portrayal nimbly vacillates between childish innocence and frailty caused by emotional and sexual trauma, to one possessed by evil. His voice is sweet and pure, and time just seems to stop when he sings the heart-wrenching and melancholy, “Malo.”

The chamber opera conducted by the talented Jayce Ogren, utilizes a 14-piece orchestra with a single instrumentalist on each section with the exception of two performers on percussion. It’s a fabulously talented ensemble that creates a much fuller sound than expected from such a truncated opera orchestra.

The set heightens the drama and creepiness with its minimalistic décor. The ceiling is covered in light bulbs hanging from wires that from a distance look like spider webs. Set changes are made by furniture and the light bulbs strands rising and falling from the ceiling. The living room is the main set piece, and the window panes have missing sections that effectively give the impression that in this home “things have been done that are no good.”

Ultimately, this rendition of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” is tremendously engaging, creatively staged, excellently cast, beautifully sung, and seamlessly executed.

What American Opera Can Learn from the World

Sleepy puppy

  This is me after my 20-hour flight from Australia back to the States.

This photo describes my general state of aggressive lethargy more eloquently than any collection of words I could ever hope to pen.

(As a side note, do you know how hard it is to pick just one Sleepy Puppy” picture from Google? Practically impossible. This blog was this close to becoming “I F***ing Love Sleepy Puppies.”)

It’s good to be home, I missed it. Amurica.

And how I did miss The Metropolitan Opera. But thank goodness I didn’t miss their smokin’ production of Wagner’s Parsifal. February 27th!

ParsifalLord of the rings

Though someone needs to tell The Met that it would have been far more apropos to copy the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King signage for their production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle instead of for his Parsifal.

People who thought Lord of the Rings was long must have never tried to sit through Wagner’s 16-HOUR Ring Cycle. Because before you know it, your ass is asleep and so are you.

Tolkien’s ring cycle is like wearing roller skates for a 5K compared to Wagner’s stiletto marathon in a vat of honey.

In my previous blog post I mentioned I was seeing La Boheme at the iconic Sydney Opera House. I enjoyed it immensely, but I found myself comparing Australian Opera to American Opera.

As I get back into the swing of American opera, I can’t help but to approach it from the perspective of seeing what else the world of opera has to offer.

Just so I’m clear, I’d choose a Met production over a Sydney Opera production any day. Our casts are generally legions better, our orchestra is incomparable, the sets and costumes superlative, the notes in the program are more comprehensive and informative, the venue is better taken care of, and we generally just have better things and more of them at our disposal.

But there a two main things that I LOVED about Sydney Opera that I think are missing in the US:

1. REGULAR PEOPLE REGULARLY GO TO THE OPERA

Walking into the Sydney Opera House doesn’t feel like walking into a hushed museum of overdone inhabitants from the Upper East Side. People were dressed like normal human beings and the atmosphere was comfortable and casual but appropriate. It didn’t feel like going to the opera was a rare grand occasion for the proletariat and a parade for the gilded class like it can at The Metropolitan Opera.

It was a lot of working and middle-class people who seemed to feel natural being there,  like opera was a normal part of their lives, like opera was a regular among the usual evening entertainment options of dinner and a movie.

joan sutherland   Joan Sutherland Theatre

  (Left) Australian Opera Diva, Joan Sutherland outside the theatre in the Sydney Opera House that bears her name. (Right) Interior of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

The opera house itself had a friendly, lived-in feeling instead of a pristine, sterile one.

I’m aware “friendly, lived-in feeling” sounds like a euphemism a real estate agent would use to describe a beat up old house, but the opera house honestly felt like an old friend one would visit instead of a place that was scrubbed down every night like a hospital.

And that feeling comes more from an attitude rather than architectural design.

I’m not a proponent of  letting the gorgeous Lincoln Center dilapidate into urban blight or putting shutters on the windows to make it more homey.

I’m also not advocating the Lincoln Center be turned into a nightclub or giving it a makeover to make it the hottest place to hold your sweet sixteen.

The Lincoln Center is what it is, and that’s a beautiful, magnificent piece of architecture that should not be altered.

I just think the overall attitude of conscious exclusivity is unnecessarily off-putting and malignant to the general public opinion of opera, and is more prevalent in America than in Australia or Europe.

2. YOUNG PEOPLE

Holy sh*t, there were so many young people there!

I have a hypothetical drinking game that I play when I go to the opera at The Met where I mentally take a shot every time I see someone my age. It’s never been enough to get even hypothetically tipsy.

The Sydney Opera House was so different!

There were people at the Sydney Opera House who don’t have personal stories of where they were when Kennedy was shot; people who only know it was once cool to buy Pet Rocks because they watched I Love the 80′s on VH1;  people who have only used the word, “bodacious” ironically; and even people who have never lived in a world without the Internet.

And amazingly enough, they looked like they wanted to be there!

Opera Bar

Right outside the Sydney Opera House is the Opera Bar.

And the Opera Bar was HOPPING every night I was there! It was so nuts to come out of the opera and see hundreds and hundreds of young people drinking, dancing (not to opera music), and partying right outside the opera house and knowing this is how it is every single day!?!

I can’t imagine that EVER happening in New York City outside the Lincoln Center on a daily basis.

met chandeliers

Opera was made for everyone. Not just for those who can pay to patronize the decorative Swarovski Crystal.

And like it or not, opera needs “the rabble” to survive.

Opera is a dying art. Especially in America. There are so many people who don’t know anything about it, nor care to. But there’s really no reason it should be this way.

There are so may things that can get in the way of Americans understanding and loving opera: foreign language, foreign singing style, foreign instruments, and foreign story lines; why not make its home a friendly and welcoming atmosphere?

Opera is Aussome in Sydney!

Sydney opera house

At least I hope so. I’m in Sydney and I love it! I would think I was dreaming, except I know that if I was dreaming about Australia, Hugh Jackman would have made an appearance by now.

I ate kangaroo meat on Tuesday, pet a kangaroo on Wednesday (not the same one), and tonight I’m seeing La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House!

Sydney Opera House Production of La Boheme

La Boheme 2 La Boheme 3

I’m so excited to see La Boheme! I’ll give you my review when I get back. though I’m sure (hope) it will be nothing but complimentary.

I’m just excited to be here!

I remember looking at picture of the Sydney Opera House when I was a little girl and thinking, “Wow that’s SO BEAUTIFUL!  I will NEVER see it in real life, because it’s SO FAR away.”

And here I am!

One of the main things I LOVE about the Sydney Opera House is that it’s such a major part of the skyline. You can’t help think about opera on a daily basis even if you don’t ever see an actual opera.

Sydney Skyline 1

It actually reminds me of my hometown Kansas City’s recent construction of the Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts. Not only because they have the similar shell-like exterior, but because when you see the skyline, you have no choice but to see the city’s highest venue for the classical performing arts!

Kauffman Center Skyline 3

Kauffman Center Skyline 5   Downtown Kansas City Skyline

Sometimes you just have to trick people into thinking about opera ;)

Get a Restraining Order, ‘Cuz I’m Obsessed: Love Duet from Les Troyens

Heaven, I’m in heaven.

I have been walking around New York City with this playing in my head non-stop. Which is a nicer soundtrack than the usual chorus of car horns and profanities.

Susan Graham & Gregory Kunde sing “Nuit D’ivresse” from Les Troyens

Les Troyens Good One

Screenshot from the duet, 1:16 is when it gets good, watch it!

Opera Stardom=Fountain of Youth

fountain of youth

Explorer Ponce de Leon, I don’t think I need to point out the irony of you looking in 16th century Florida for the Fountain of Youth, when we all know Florida is the hip replacementest place to get old.

What Senor Leon should have done is find a nice conservatory in Seville to take some voice lessons and severe college debt, and come out with a diploma with no transferable value in any professional field other than music, because it would give him the abilities to become an OPERA STAR!

Because ladies and gentlemen, becoming an opera star is the secret to eternal youth.

Case in point: RENEE FLEMING

Renee’s professional career began when she won the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions in 1988, and it’s grown exponentially until she’s become America’s favorite diva and arguably the world’s most famous opera singer.  Anyone who looks at her today thinks, “Damn girl, you fine!” But this was not always the case.

1988  Metropolitan Council Auditions    2009-2010  Metropolitan Opera Season in Armida

renee fleming ugly 4 renee fleming after 3

Renee went from looking like a middle-aged NASCAR mother of 3 kids she had on purpose and 3 that she didn’t, into a saucy vixen with wind-blown tresses who when she walks down the street men yell, “Hey girl, when you turn 18?”

(Just as a side note observation, Renee was clearly wearing “Bras by Bryn Terfel” (famous bass-baritone) at her 1988 audition because those boobs are LOW.)

1996 RCA Release of Strauss’ 4 Last Songs           2008 Decca release of Strauss’ 4 Last Songs

renee fleming before 1cd-fleming-strauss 4 last songs after

Who the hell makes two albums of exactly the same songs? That’s like Taylor Swift re-releasing her Red album with exactly the same songs but a different cover picture and calling it Redder. But anyone wondering why in the world anyone would need to make two recordings of Strauss’ 4 last songs clearly has never seen this gem from 1996.

Because for Renee Fleming this re-release of the content isn’t a ruse to get more money, it’s a redemption.

The two album covers are literally like looking at the “Before and After” shots from a makeover show. I’m sure it’s been said that  a new album was necessary because of her new interpretations gleaned from artistic maturity, blah blah blah. But let’s be honest, if I had an album where it looked like I was wearing a bedazzled Snuggie on the cover, I’d demand a retake too.

1988 Random Photo                                            2003 Renee Fleming By Request album photo

renee fleming before 2renee fleming after 4

I think I’ve made my point here.

Here’s another pic of Renee looking smokin’, just because I feel like a jerk for posting so many not cute ones :)

hot renee

The End.

Met Susan Graham & Renee Fleming @ Carnegie Hall & Took this Crappy Picture

Susan Graham and Renee Fleming

I wish I had met the pair at The Metropolitan Opera instead of Carnegie Hall, because then I could say I Met them. Maybe it’s better this way.

It all happened so fast, it’s just a blur; at least that’s what my camera thought.

This photo is so indiscernible it looks like it was taken by Big Foot’s personal photographer.

Though at the same time its awfulness is kind of what makes it hilarious and enjoyableKind of like the reason anyone watches Dance Moms.

My sister looked at the picture and said, “That could be anyone in the picture.” Yeah I think that’s about right. But just so you know, the left blur in white is Renee Fleming with my opera singer friend, Risa, and the right blur in black is badass Susan Graham and myself.

The pair were in town for their recital for Renee’s Perspective Series at Carnegie Hall and I saw them at an event called “Duets: A Conversation with Renee Fleming and Susan Graham” where they talked about themselves and their careers and I met them at a CD signing afterwards.

Anyways, I left the encounter thinking 2 things:

  1. Susan Graham is HILARIOUS, genuine, charismatic, personable, and solidified as my most favorite singer.
  2. Holy crap I need a new camera.

I had to post a picture of my “Susan Graham Swag” (It’s called that for alliteration’s sake…not because I don’t love you Renee.)

Susan Graham Swag

I do feel somewhat lame, kind of like a little girl laying out some new Barbies her mother just bought her and saying, “Look at my stuff!”

Irregardless, I LOVED meeting the pair so much!

I also must say that it’s always nice to meet someone you idolized as a child, and that’s who Renee Fleming was to me. Ever since I was 13 years old Renee Fleming was like a goddess. I had all her albums, her book, etc. It’s weird to see someone you idolized for so long in the flesh right in front of you. Weird, but also very cool.

The End.

Opera is cool, y’all

This blog operates on 3 tenants:

1. Opera is the highest art form.
2. Opera is for everyone.
3. Opera is cool, y’all.

*Just as a personal side note, Susan Graham is this author’s favorite opera singer both as a person and as a performer.
Susan Graham is cool, y’all.

20130202-124739.jpg