Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Opera and Musical Theatre Program presented the first of two performances of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 54 The Turn of the Screw. Structured as a prologue and two acts, the opera is an “interpretative account” of Henry James’ novella of the same name. The scare quotes are intended to suggest that the source text is no simple tale; and, indeed, the way in which it is framed within the discovery of an old manuscript previously kept hidden in a locked desk indicates that the very authority of authorship (a pun that appealed to Michel Foucault) could come into question. Britten chose to respect that framing by having a solo tenor (sung last night by Taylor Rawley), identified only as “The Prologue,” explain the manuscript source before the two acts of the opera unfold its context. (On the other hand, Britten chose not to explain the title, which is a phrase used by the man who introduces the manuscript in James’ introduction.)
The production was staged by Heather Mathews, Associate Director and Production Manager of the Opera and Musical Theatre Program. Britten scored the opera for a chamber orchestra, which was conducted by Musical and Managing Director of Opera Curt Pajer. I should observe, by way of personal context, that this was my second encounter with Mathews staging of this opera, having seen a production at Fort Mason by one of the regional opera companies, probably about ten years ago. Mathews clearly appreciated the rich ambiguities of James original text; and, as a result, last night’s interpretation differed significantly from the last one I had seen. Most of those ambiguities found their way from the source text into the libretto that Myfanwy Piper prepared for Britten. (There is even a new ambiguity of authorship that takes place at the beginning of the second act, when Piper slyly shifts her source from James to W. B. Yeats.) They, in turn, were reinforced by a set design that suggested that the very loci of the actions might not have been situated in the physical world but only in the imagination of the author of that mysterious manuscript (who may or may not have been one of the characters in the story).
If the transformation of narrative from James’ source to Piper’s libretto to Mathews’ staging was not enough to fill the mind with twists of uncertainty, Britten’s approach to the score was as cerebrally engaging as it was rhetorically intense. The score is structured as a theme (the opening scene following the prologue) followed by fifteen variations for each of the fifteen remaining scenes. In addition there is a “screw “ motif in which the pitches wind around each other and define a twelve-tone row. (This screw-like contour was illustrated in the program notes provided by Stev Täal, class of ’18.) Throughout the entire performance, Pajer led both instrumentalists and vocalists in a clear account of all of the rich content that Britten had packed into his score, enabling the attentive listener to appreciate just how much the composer could weave from a relatively spare set of basic materials.
When so much is packed into a single composition, there is the risk that even the most sympathetic listener will be overwhelmed. However, Mathews’ approach to staging the narrative was as clear in its presentation as was Pajer’s interpretation of the score. This was achieved not only through meticulous attention to establishing each of the six characters but also in her manipulation of the set, whose transformations of context reflected the psychological transformations that unfold as the story is revealed.
Note that I have tried to avoid being specific as to just what that narrative is. Those who know their James know it already, just as those already familiar with the opera. However, the production will be given a second performance tomorrow; and because Mathews was so successful in staging this work as a journey of discovery, it would be a bit of a shame to reveal any spoilers to those who have not yet experienced those discoveries.
This second performance will take place, with an entirely different second cast of vocalists, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 11. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. There will be no charge for admission. While all reservations have been taken, the Box Office will have a window set up for a Wait List; so some admission will be possible if seats are available due to those who failed to show up to use their respective reservations.