Under its new name and general manager, N.C. Opera has mounted two standard repertory works, "Tosca" and "Faust," with pleasurable but mixed results. Thursday's production of "Turn of the Screw," however, was an unqualified success. The musically gripping and visually engaging production gave a gratifying example of the new company's resources and vision.
Benjamin Britten's 1954 version of Henry James' novella retains the basic story of the impressionable young governess drawn into a disturbing world surrounding her two young charges at a lonely English country home. After she learns of the abusive relationship between the former governess and a valet, both now dead, the governess begins to suspect their spirits have invaded the children's souls.
Britten goes beyond mere psychological thriller into poetic realms, using complex musical structures in odd, almost perverse ways that are nevertheless mesmerizing. The sparse score is a mesh of ever-changing rhythms, contorted vocal lines and sudden orchestral outbursts.
Conductor Keitaro Harada led a tightly sprung, supremely confident performance, moving inevitably along the work's strange pathways, including scenes accompanied only by timpani, bells or harp. The chamber orchestra filled Durham's Carolina Theatre with immensely impressive playing.
Director Jerome Davis, from Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre, kept the staging cleanly precise, inventively manipulating his cast on Matthew Adelson's minimal but effective settings (stacked trunks for a carriage, a ladder for a tower). Ten ghostly children in nightgowns made set changes, an intriguing addition by Davis. Adelson's lighting made creative use of the theater's bare back wall, awash with blood red or verdant green as needed. The entire physical production had pleasing unity.
Andrea Edith Moore's warm soprano soared though the governess' lines - her diction clear, her acting assured. Fifth-grader Asher Philips sang sweetly and accurately as Miles, easily conquering the boy's fanciful vocal flights. Hailey Best, as his sister Flora, sang with appropriate young sound, although too obviously an adult. Benjamin Robinson gave valet Peter Quint otherworldly menace, ably abetted by Priscilla Jane Smith's haunting former governess, Miss Jessel.
Janice Meyerson's gruffly sympathetic housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, was more effective in her quiet, introspective moments than in her edgy exclamatory passages. Daniel Hinson dispatched the brief prologue with clarity.
The production did not fully explore the darkest corners of the story's characterizations or atmosphere, but it was small price to pay for such an otherwise exemplary presentation.