Benjamin Britten’s A Turn of the Screw, at BAM through Saturday, involves a governess, a house in the country, and a pair of sweet children. But only a sucker would expect things to go well—Britten signals from the beginning that something isn’t right, the expository introduction accompanied by ominous music. There are no major-chord resolutions; expect something sinister.
It arrives in the form of ghosts and their sexual pasts with each other and the children in the governess’ care. Henry James’s novella of the same name is celebrated for its ambiguity, as is the 1961 film adaptation The Innocents: is the governess really seeing ghosts, or has she gone mad? Britten’s opera however abandons such psychological uncertainty; particularly in Sam Buntrock’s handsome production for City Opera, set post-Star Wars, it’s quite clear that the ghosts are real, and in possession of formidable forces as the governess (powerfully sung by Sara Jakubiak) competes with them for the children’s souls. After all, Peter Quint, the male ghost, sings. Soliloquies. (The last Britten opera I saw was Billy Budd, which, set on a ship, featured only male voices. Turn of the Screw is the opposite, sung save Quint entirely by women and high-pitched children.) Instead, this is a psychologically simpler story about surrogate parents who represent the forces of virtue and debauchery, innocence and evil, godliness and devilishness. (A similar struggle plays out in Britten’s score, which entwines classically tonal flourishes with something more trickily 12-tone.) As the boy, likely molested by the late Quint, repeatedly asks, “am I good?” It’s not an ambiguously rhetorical question. The answer is yes.
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