Britten ghost story at City Opera

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 25, 2013 at 9:53 am •  Published: February 25, 2013
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NEW YORK (AP) — When it comes to operatic ghost stories, none is more creepily effective than Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw."

The British composer's 1954 adaptation of the Henry James story, setting a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, perfectly captures the suffocating atmosphere as well as the ambiguity of the original. Britten's elegant score, written for chamber orchestra and six soloists, uses 12-tone serialism interspersed with traditional melodic forms that keeps the listener off-balance and instills a growing sense of unease.

On Sunday afternoon, the New York City Opera premiered a new production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that captured some of these qualities but ultimately failed to do justice to the piece.

Much of the problem lies in the decision by director Sam Buntrock — best known for the revival of Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" — to tell the story in the style of 1980s horror movies. Though intelligent updating can shed new light on a work, this effort seems at best beside the point and, at crucial times, downright harmful.

James set his story in a 19th-century English country estate, where a young governess is sent to care for a brother and sister, Miles and Flora, whose only living relative can't be bothered with them. She soon discovers to her horror that their former governess (Miss Jessel) and her lover (Peter Quint) — both dead — have returned as ghosts to try to claim the children's souls. Or so she thinks. It's also just possible that the phantoms she thinks she sees are figments of her overactive imagination.

James — and Britten — do a masterful job of keeping us guessing, and it's questionable how drawing inspiration from "The Shining," ''The Exorcist" and the like can improve on the original.

Buntrock, using an ingenious cutaway set by David Farley and clever lighting by David Weiner, moves the action to a modern manor house, complete with a television set, Cassio keyboard and a "Star Wars" poster. Whenever Quint appears, the TV screen — a la "Poltergeist" — develops static. This gimmick gets old, especially in the final scene when Quint and the Governess are waging a tug of war for the soul of Miles. To have the TV start acting up in the midst of their battle is a silly distraction.