Since Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” was first published over a century ago, audiences have long puzzled over the mystery at its core. Are the ghosts of a villainous valet and disgraced tutor stalking the grounds of an English country manor, desperate to possess its two children? Or are these specters the delusions of the children’s new governess, who tragically brings her young charges to ruin? This weekend at New England Conservatory’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, Enigma Chamber Opera offered Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of the enigmatic story through an alternative, contemporary lens, marking an auspicious arrival in the Boston arts landscape.
In this new “Screw” by artistic director Kirsten Z Cairns, it’s not just the ghosts who don’t actually exist; the grand house and everyone in and around it are products of an elaborate fantasy by the Governess, a modern-day traumatized recluse who adopts the governess persona as a therapeutic role-playing exercise. Initially, it seems like this may empower her and cheer her up, but when repressed memories begin to surface, things start to go horribly.
Mental illness is notoriously difficult to carry off onstage, especially when adapting pre-existing material. For that, thank goodness for soprano Aliana de la Guardia. The co-founder of contemporary company Guerilla Opera doesn’t often take standard repertoire roles, but she fully showed up for this one. She made every use of Peter Torpey’s claustrophobic studio apartment set, staggering across the room to the sink and hiding under pillows, and her willowy soprano voice glimmered with faint sparks of hope before slowly descending into the abyss.
While her mental projections — the children Flora and Miles, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint — entered and left as they willed by crawling under the twin bed, dancing around the room, and hiding behind a Venetian blind, de la Guardia’s Governess was increasingly trapped. The sinister interludes between scenes became the soundtrack to her downward spiral. The choreography definitely could have pulled back on the dramatic head-holding as sign of despair, but the Governess’s torment felt quite real, and de la Guardia dragged me through the wringer with her.
“Screw” as an entirely internal psychodrama intrigued as a concept, but the execution felt unfinished in parts. As the standard vexed stranger-in-a-strange-land of the horror genre, the Governess must be lured to the haunted house some way so the action can begin. By way of this, Cairns establishes that the Governess has a disturbing obsession with her psychiatrist, who directed her to try this role-play; he stands in for the children’s unseen, not-to-be-bothered guardian. The cracks in her fantasy reveal past abuse by a man, stretching back to childhood, but it was never clear if the ominous Quint (or whoever he stands for) and this psychiatrist are the same.
For this debut production, Cairns gathered an adult cast that would appear in any who’s who of opera in Boston. Tenor Matthew DiBattista’s Quint lacked the silky, ethereal quality of a Pears or Bostridge, but his hale voice evoked an earthy, real menace. Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty served up a spiked mug of Ovaltine as Mrs. Grose, while Michelle Trainor, soprano-Friday of pretty much every opera company in town, turned in yet another bravo-worthy performance as a rueful, terrifying Jessel.
Soprano Erin Matthews should be at the top of any director’s list for their next Flora; her flopping curtsy was so convincingly childish that I had to make sure Cairns hadn’t actually engaged a pre-teen singer, and her pristine timbre and expressive face emphasized her sudden turn from chirpy to creepy. Two local boy sopranos traded off the role of Miles; the Saturday performance, which I saw, featured 10-year-old Linus Schafer Goulthorpe. Matvei Soykin sang the previous night.
In the pit, Kristo Kondakçi commanded a keen chamber orchestra and deftly balanced its dynamics with the singers, and Maja Tremizewska gave an eerie cast to the score’s prominent piano and celesta. This “Screw” still needed supertitles; despite the mostly-crisp diction, there was no head or tail to be made of the words once the music turned into the luscious bramble-maze that springs up when Britten writes for many voices. But if this is only the first step for this new company, I eagerly await the second.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Presented by Enigma Chamber Opera. At the Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, New England Conservatory, Jan. 18.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.