It was brave and ambitious of the Madison Opera to choose Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw for its mid-season production. Perhaps the most intriguing and durable of his "chamber operas," this one takes up the best-known of Henry James's ghost stories, a study as much in psychological enigmas as in ectoplasm.
Given the intimate scale of the opera, the choice of the Overture Center's Playhouse made sense. But the use to which the horseshoe house, with its thrust stage, was put had problems. The recurrent projections on a backdrop scrim did not always come off clearly, depending where one sat, while the constant movement of the scrim's segments often blocked the surtitle screens, at least for those sitting on the sides.
Director Doug Scholz-Carlson's staging was resourceful but occasionally arguable, especially in some dubious pantomimes imposed on the variations-interludes. Against James' ambiguity as to the ghosts' actual existence, Britten opted to have them definitely real, visually and audibly. But the staging sometimes went too far in presenting so much direct interaction between them and the Governess, their opponent, the possibly deranged protagonist.
The cast, to be sure, was a strong one. The two (supposedly bewitched) children, Miles and Flora, were played by Alistair Sewell and Jennifer DeMain, offspring of our local conductors: their acting was wonderful, even if they were not always quite up to the taxing vocal demands. Carrying the heaviest musical and dramatic burden was soprano Caroline Worra, in her Madison debut, as the emotionally challenged Governess.
Of various local backgrounds were three other principals. Tenor Gregory Smith was powerful in voice and manner as both the Prologue and the evil ghost Peter Quint, while mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck was poignant as Quint's ghostly victim and accomplice, the former governess, Miss Jessel. And soprano Julia Faulkner convincingly portrayed the amiable but confused housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The surtitles were often helpful, even for an opera in English, though Worra, Schmidt and Van Eyck were virtually self-sufficient in their diction.
Britten called for only 12 instrumentalists as his "orchestra". These played expertly at the back of the stage, under the totally accomplished leadership of John DeMain, who brought off the whole venture to perfection musically.
In all, an absorbing production of a thought-provoking opera.