The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” offered many things to like, some things to dislike | January 31, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s probably heretical to say and I bet some of my my literary colleagues won’t forgive me for saying it. But I have to confess: Overall, Benjamin Britten’s 1954 operatic setting of “The Turn of the Screw” proved more enjoyable and accessible to me than did the original 1898 ghost-story novella by the American master Henry James.

I found that out by first-hand attending the outstanding production of Britten’s by the Madison Opera this past weekend.

Yes, there are some unfortunate tradeoffs when you go from page to stage. They include losing the ambiguity – “true” ghosts or projected psychological illusions? – in the original literary version versus the more objective or behavioral adaptation required by the visual and musical purposes and resources of the stage. (That is similar to the problems one often encounters with movie versions of novels, which can express interiority better so much. But adaptations do exist. Check out the film version with Vanessa Redgrave of Virginia Woolf’s famous novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”)

So the opera and the novel really require you to treat them as different, albeit linked, cultural entities.

Having said that, here are the things I liked and disliked about the production:


Best of all, I liked the sepia-like ghostly projections on the gauze-like screens that sometimes even slowed down the action to an otherworldly effect. It was powerful and original use of visual imagery as its best and the projections worked especially well with the final image of Miles beckoning from the beyond that lingered long after the black-out ending and the final silence.

I liked the playing by the orchestra, made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Under the baton of John DeMain, it performed evenly with top quality and lots of nuances. Plus, it never overwhelmed the singers. Balance is big.

I liked the evenness of the adult cast. True, some voices were more powerful with UW soprano Julia Faulkner as Mrs. Grose topping them all and with soprano Caroline Worra as the Governess close behind. Tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, far right, in a photo by James Gill for The Madison Opera) ) turned in a terrific performance in the high range of his voice, singing expressively and convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck (below, second from right) did a fine job with the limited role of Miss Jessel. Still, what impressed me was the overall evenness of the cast. You never winced when one singer opened his or her mouth. Assembling an even cast is no small achievement. Kudos to the Madison Opera.

I liked the opera debuts of local children in major roles: high-schooler Jennifer DeMain and middle-schooler Alistair Sewell (the daughter of John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera and the son of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s director Andrew Sewell, respectively). They acquitted themselves very well. DeMain’s proved the stronger voice, while Sewell’s acting (below, with Caroline Worra’s Governess in a photo by James Gill for The Madison Opera) proved the stronger, with him as the charming school boy who may be a bad seed under the adorable veneer. But one must make some allowances for debuts of young people, and both debuts were cause for pride on their part.

For both adults and children, I like that the production used so many people, including singers, instrumentalists and other production people, who have ties to Madison, to the UW and to Wisconsin. Regional opera companies should play off their regionality whenever possible. The Madison Opera does that.

I liked the intimacy of The Playhouse, in the Overture Center. This was the first time the Madison Opera has staged a work in the small thrust-stage theater. I hope it isn’t the last. You feel close to the characters, close to the other audience members and close to the musicians, who seem more integral and less accompanying by playing from the back of the stage area behind a quasi-transparent curtain. The theater fuses all those elements together.

I liked the elevated flat-screen video or TV panels that gave all secitons of seating the titles of various scenes (kind of like in silent movies) and the English words being sung. (Sometimes, especially in the higher ranges, you can’t make out words in your own language, let alone a foreign one.)

The screens also brought the audience real-time pictures of John DeMain conducting. The involving visual element made for an engaging and holistic experience. Purists may groan, but I say let them groan. Anything that makes opera more entertaining and more understandable gets my vote.

I liked that three of the performances (Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon) sold out and that the Thursday night performance played to an 85-percent house or higher. That kind of support bodes well for the future of the Madison Opera.

I liked the two-hour running time of the Britten work. Really, sometimes grand opera needs to be less grand. These days four or five hours can test one’s patience. This was just right, especially if you had had a long day.


I didn’t like most of the music, although I found the second act stronger than the first. (But don’t get me wrong — I didn’t hate it the way I find serialism , 12-tone music and atonal music to be downright ugly. I just didn’t like Britten’s score a lot. And quite a few audience members were “singing” their own sarcastic imitations at intermission. That tells you something.)

Yes, my professional musician friends tell me Britten was a first-rate crafter who music is finely wrought and wonderfully rewarding to study and perform. And there were moments when the same sounds you make when you put your lips together and produce an eerie, ghost-like wo-o-O-O-o-o up and down in pitch seems like exactly the melodic motif that Britten tried to capture and use in various forms or permutations.

The music was atmospheric, I’ll admit, though not as beautifully atmospheric as in the “Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes.” But sometimes it felt like they were singing at you — not for you.

I go to operas for the music, not for the story or the acting, and I miss hearing a big luscious melody in an aria or duet or chorus that takes me to another higher place and lets me leave the theater wishing I could hear it again soon. The more choppy “Screw” score did not offer such moment. I guess that makes it thoroughly modern. I, however, am not so modern – at least not when it comes to music. I like a Gershwin tune – and a Puccini aria. How about you?

I didn’t like all the stage business with moving too much furniture around too often. How many desks and chairs do you need for one two-hour performance? It became distracting and struck me as lazy, uninventive staging. I feel the same way about some of the children’s pseudo-busyness and children’s games with cushions and pillows. Please get to the point, I wanted to say. Stop wasting my time and attention.


So far the Madison Opera is three for three in its success rate for having added a smaller third production in winter: Aaron Copland “The Tender Land” (in the Promenade Theater) Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte” (in the Capitol Theater) and now Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw” (in The Playhouse).

What will they think of next? And where will it go?

I am anxious to hear – which we will in just a couple months.

If you went, what did you think of “The Turn of the Screw”?

Where do you agree or disagree with me?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I disagree about the music, but I hear where you’re coming from. The score has a subtle sensibility in its phrasing, theme, and structure – too subtle for any ear, no matter how well-tempered, to really invest in the first few times around. It benefits tremendously from repeated listening, though – it’s possible to keep peeling away layers and to really crawl inside this score. That’s not an especially good quality for a piece of theater, for which the first impression is typically the only impression. But it makes for a really dazzling piece of music in my book.

    Comment by Will — February 1, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    • Hi Will,
      Thanks for reading and then writing.

      My professional musician friends say the same thing. And I believe you, as I believe them. I have no reason to doubt what you and they say.

      But I will not be attending a lot of performances or, frankly, putting the opera on my CD player many times.

      First impressions do count in art, and I guess I will stick with some music that I feel is more rewarding and perhaps some new things that hold up on a first listening better than Britten’s score did. It just didn’t connect with me or move me.

      Best to you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 2, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  2. I heartily agree that Julia Faulkner was the stand-out performer vocally — hers was (is) the performance I keep coming back to when I think about the performance. She fit her volume and style to the Playhouse space, no small feat.


    Comment by Lindsay — January 31, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

  3. I agree with Stockinger about the tediousness of the music — my husband’s comment was that “Apparently, Britten used several of his 12 notes only a couple of times.”

    I loved the adjustable gauze curtains, though, and thought their movement was a clever solution to create multiple ethereal spaces on the small stage.

    I’m so pleased that Madison Opera is thriving, but Britten’s opera was a chore that our party of 4 endured.

    Comment by Doris Dubielzig — January 31, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

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