Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera
Vale Rideout as Peter Quint and Rebecca Nash as Miss Jessel in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Turn of the Screw.’’ (Jeffrey Dunn for Boston Lyric Opera)
Boston Lyric Opera is on the move. New England’s largest opera company, both loved and criticized in recent years for its staunch traditionalism, has launched a new and rather untraditional initiative called Opera Annex, promising one adventurous work a year outside of its home at the Shubert Theatre.
The first offering in this series, Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,’’ opened Wednesday night in a new production at the Park Plaza Castle, a historic armory building never before used for opera. The vocal performances were among the best I have heard in any BLO production of recent years. This staging by Sam Helfrich fares less well, but the Opera Annex concept itself represents a major step forward for the company, taken at a time when plenty of arts organizations are responding to the economic downturn by scaling back on artistic vision.
Britten’s riveting chamber opera adaptation of the famous Henry James novella was a compelling place to begin the new series, and the vast Drill Room of the Castle was an inspired choice as a found space for modern opera. BLO built a seating platform at one end of the hall and erected a small stage, a walkway, and an improvised orchestra pit, ultimately creating a space that actually felt more intimate than the Shubert, despite the hall’s giant proportions. And more generally, removing opera from its traditional home upends audience expectations in crucial ways, increasing the likelihood that potential new audiences will respond to the art form’s content rather than its packaging. The current run of “The Turn of the Screw’’ has nearly sold out and a preview performance earlier this week drew exactly the kind of age-diverse and artistically curious crowd that this company needs to have in its future.
Unfortunately, the current production was marred by constant projections onto an enormous screen that loomed over the orchestra, distracting the eye with related yet often arbitrary images that at times completely undermined the dramatic momentum and musical intensity that the singers were working so hard to achieve. It was as if Helfrich did not trust the score enough to let it stand on its own. It would have done so mightily. Removing the screen might have also allowed the production to make use of the numerous raised walkways and staircases that are built-in features of this remarkable space.
As the governess sent to a remote home to look after two orphaned children, Emily Pulley gave a superb performance, vocally lustrous and dramatically nuanced, conveying a fierce determination to protect her charges but also a touching vulnerability as she slowly became unglued by the presence of evil spirits in her midst. Joyce Castle, singing with a dark-hued and earthy mezzo, was a strong, grounded presence as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Vale Rideout was persuasively sinister as Peter Quint, yet his tenor was also sweet enough to convey his character’s seductive power.
Singing with a robust and focused tone, the Australian soprano Rebecca Nash, in her American stage debut, was a formidable Miss Jessel. Kathryn Skemp’s Flora was ringing and agile. And as Miles, both Wednesday night’s Aidan Gent, age 13, and Ryan Williams, age 12, in Monday’s preview performance, were impressively poised. There were times when one wished for more sweep, more clarity and more rhythmic definition from the orchestra under Andrew Bisantz’s baton, but overall this was a highly rewarding performance of Britten’s complex, subtle, ambiguous, and ultimately spellbinding score.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.