Slowly they turn: Pacific Opera Project raises the bar with Britten

Ariel Downs as Miles in Pacific Opera Project's 'Turn of the Screw'
Ariel Downs as Miles

Pacific Opera Project’s production of The Turn of the Screw is a jewel in the crown of celebration surrounding the 100th  anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, with local events including a wide variety of repertoire and a range of ensembles.  This show is serious and nuanced, as the plot tells the story of a young woman, who travels to the English countryside to run a household and care for two small children. The elderly housekeeper provides a window between current events and the history of the estate, especially concerning the dark circumstances surrounding the former governess Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint, a manservant — both deceased.

A difficult tale of madness and mystery, the plot can often be lost on the stage. In this case, the story is aided by the intimate setting of the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts, which allows the viewer to feel as if they are part of the action – at times it gave the sense of experiencing at Stephen King novel in 3D. While POP normally deals in much lighter fare, their foray into dark and serious opera is a triumph.

The pre-concert lecture by music director Stephen Karr is highly recommended, not only (in this evening’s case) for the delightful examples sung by the cover cast, but also for the insight provided into Britten’s musical treatment of the original novel by Henry James. The lecture includes erudite biographical information as well as some clear and relevant musical theory, which helps explain the musical structure of the show.  For the gala “pre-show” concert, Ariel Downs, Saira Frank, Matthew Miles, and Stephanie Sadownik brought considerable vocal talent to the musical examples, which included highlights of Britten’s work, and even a song by composer Alban Berg to better elucidate 12-tone compositional technique.

The packed house eagerly awaited the show, and could admire the unique use of space, due to the lack of the traditional stage curtain. The well-disciplined orchestra, led by Karr, maintained excellent balance with the singers, despite being raised on a platform and well above and behind most of the action. The ensemble between orchestra and voices was exceptional, especially considering the demands of a difficult score. The audience was immediately drawn in by the powerful and inventive use of lighting, which helped set up the dramatic tension between the characters. The bespoke costumes conveyed the time period so well that the simple backdrops were necessary merely to give a sense of location for the action.

Jennifer Wallace, Katy Tang as Flora, Rebecca Sjowal, Ariel Downs in Pacific Opera Project's 'Turn of the Screw'
Jennifer Wallace as Mrs. Grose, Katy Tang as Flora, Rebecca Sjowall as Governess, Ariel Downs as Miles

From her first entrance, the Governess, played by Rebecca Sjöwall, took command of the stage with her bright and well-sculpted soprano. Her amazingly clear sound and diction gave real life to Myfanwy Piper‘s libretto. One of the musical highlights of the evening was the duet between the Governess and Mrs. Grose, played by Jennifer Wallace. Their perfect intonation and musicality were an absolute delight. Ms. Wallace not only brought formidable vocal power and exemplary diction, but also a well-crafted character who expertly moves the dramatic scenes forward.

The roles of the two children were played by adults — Ariel Downs (Miles) and Katy Tang (Flora) — both offering convincingly creepy portrayals of considerably younger characters, and singing well throughout.  The duets of children’s folk songs were very much in sync, and particularly effective in spite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity.

Clay Hilley as Peter Quint, Marina Harris as Miss Jessel in Pacific Opera Project's 'Turn of the Screw'
Clay Hilley as Peter Quint; Marina Harris as Miss Jessel in ‘Turn of the Screw’

The dark and haunting character of Peter Quint came alive in Clay Hilley’s interpretation. His physical interpretation of Quint was frightening and foreboding, leaving the audience scared enough to look over their shoulders to see where he would appear next. Hilley’s tenor sound was both beautiful and unnerving in its ease and simplicity, such as one might expect from the mysterious beyond.

His counterpart from the grave, Miss Jessel, was portrayed by Marina Harris. Her captivating mezzo sound seemed endless and unfettered across the board, giving her character a melancholy and tortured soul.

The production is a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears. Director Josh Shaw shows a brilliant sense of space and storytelling in his approach to staging drama. The supernatural and heartbreaking tableaux that are created during the show are beautifully conceived, making the frantic fear felt by the living even more palpable. One would find it difficult not be engaged in this production.

Rebecca Sjowall as Governess; Jennifer Wallace as Mrs. Grose in Pacific Opera Project's 'Turn of the Screw'
Rebecca Sjowall and Jennifer Wallace in ‘Turn of the Screw’

If you aren’t sure that you enjoy this dark fare, or if you have doubts about any works by Britten, then come see POP’s interpretation and get ready for your opinion to be changed for the better.

Three more performances through January 19 —

POP website

Calendar listing

Photos by Martha Benedict, courtesy of Pacific Opera Project


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