We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, October 26, 2019


Ashley Emerson and Jennifer Check

We have just had an experience that compares with most operagoing experiences as a dinner at La Grenouille would compare with a fine dinner at home. It was way more than delicious and nourishing; it was one of those evenings that will be indelibly etched in our memory. It was Britten's Turn of the Screw performed on the beautiful estate Wave Hill.

Eric Einhorn's concept for On Site Opera is to produce just such experiences that add up to more than the sum of their parts. There is always a location that amounts to way more than seats in an audience facing a stage with sets. There is always an intimacy with the story and the singers. It must be quite a challenge to find just the right location for any given story but it always works.

There was not enough space for more than a fortunate few and we count ourself among them. Because you, dear reader, probably did not make the cut (the show having sold out within minutes of its announcement), we would like to cut right to the chase and describe the experience. Trust our judgment on the point that the parts were superbly cast and magnificently acted and sung and that Geoffrey McDonald's conducting of his chamber orchestra made the most of Britten's score, adding layer upon layer of anxiety and suspence. 

A team of guides handed each one of us a lantern and guided us through the pathways until we reached a gothic looking building with a balcony from which a narrator introduced us to the story. The opera is based upon a gothic ghost story--a novella by Henry James. Myfanwy Piper wrote the concise and effective libretto.

Next we met The Governess in the person of soprano Jennifer Check, in perfect period costume, who led us to the front door of the country house where she was to take care of two orphaned children, without ever bothering their uncle who had hired her. She shared her excitement and anxiety with us and even asked someone to hold her suitcase whilst she opened the front door.

From then on we felt like a fly on the wall, observing her meeting the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore) and then her two charges who stood holding photographs of the former governess Miss Jessell and the valet Peter Quint, both of whom had died recently. 

The children had been instructed by Mrs. Grose to bow and curtsy but we knew instantly that something was wrong. One couldn't have seen the subtle facial expressions underlying their politesse at the Met but it was obvious from a few yards away.

It seemed clear to us that The Governess is not going mad when she sees the ghosts of Mr. Quint and Miss Jessell. (We have seen a film in which she is portrayed as hysterical and the children as needing to be rescued from her care.)

As Mr. Einhorn has so astutely directed the action, moving the audience from one room of the large mansion to another, the illusion of knowing the characters took hold and gripped us by the throat. We lost the concept of ambiguity from James' novella and identified strongly with the terrified Governess as she faced the two ghosts.

Dominic Armstrong was completely riveting as Peter Quint; the way Mr. Einhorn directed his scenes with Miles (counter-tenor Jordan Rutter) we were convinced that Quint had seduced the boy whilst he yet lived and was trying to snatch his soul now that he had died. We rarely see such a portrayal of evil onstage with Mr. Armstrong coloring his voice to match the text.

Adriana Zabala made a rather more sympathetic Miss Jessell. In a directorial coup,  there was a parallel scene with the current Governess and Miss Jessell walking the same pathway in tandem. This added to the gothic element of the storytelling and gave us the shivers. We wondered whether the poor (unnamed) Governess would also die. It is a mark of great storytelling and great acting that we were so caught up that we wanted to know what happened to her! Ms. Check made us feel on her side from the start.

As Flora, Ashley Emerson acted the part of a young girl with considerable success. As Miles, Mr. Rutter was totally convincing. He is small and slender of stature and his treble voice lent considerable verisimilitude. Both "children" gave evidence of secrets and secret lives.

Even Mrs. Grose, portrayed by mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, seemed to have secrets, only some of which were shared with The Governess. At one point we saw her drop something in a cup of tea but were not sure for whom it was meant or whether it were poison or sedative. Ambiguity was everywhere and we believe James wanted us to be puzzled by unanswered questions.

The chamber orchestra was as Britten intended, comprising a string quartet plus a bass and one each of the necessary winds. The versatile instrumentalists seemed adept with the flutist handling piccolo and two registers of flutes; the oboist doubled on English Horn and the clarinetist switched to the Bass Clarinet, one of our favorite sounds in the orchestra. There was also a French Horn, a Bassoon, and a marvelous harpist who created quite an atmosphere. 

The pianist and the percussionist added to the texture; there were chimes, some soft Kettle Drumming, and what might have been a celesta. We meant to inspect the percussion section after the curtain call but we were still in some kind of state that lasted until we got home. The atmosphere of the performance was so intense that at one point we accepted what occurred onstage as reality and felt as if we were a ghost.

The costuming by Amanda Seymour was perfect and completed the illusion that we were back in the 19th c.  What a completely strange experience! Talk about total immersion!!!

On Site Opera's contribution to the New York opera scene is valuable and unique. Our only regret is that his productions cannot accommodate more people.

© meche kroop

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