My favorite opera composer of the twentieth century is Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and I'd rank him up there with Mozart and Verdi, who happened to be his favorite composers.
This view is not shared by all that many other people (yet), which might explain why his music has been performed continuously since he wrote it, but not all that often in comparison to Puccini and Richard Strauss. For instance, his great 1953 opera about Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, "Gloriana," has never been performed at the San Francisco Opera while Puccini's "Tosca" will be performed next year for what seems the 543rd time since the opera house's opening in 1923.
So I was extremely excited when I noticed an announcement for performances this weekend and the next of Britten's 1954 opera "The Turn of The Screw," taken from Henry James' dense, creepy, psychosexual ghost novella, which I had never heard live before. It was being performed by a small group called The San Francisco Lyric Opera in the 400-seat Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason, which is a perfect venue for an opera that calls for only 13 orchestral musicians and six singers, including two children.
Britten wrote a major part for his tenor lover, Peter Pears, in every one of his operas, starting with the title role in "Peter Grimes" and concluding with old Aschenbach who falls in love with a boy in "Death and Venice." Their collaboration is one of the most extraordinary in musical history, and what's truly amazing is that there are recordings with Britten conducting and Pears singing that are definitive to this day. In "Screw," Pears played the ghost Peter Quint, who has "corrupted" the previous governess Miss Jessel and also the two children at a country estate empty of everyone but other servants.
The major relationship in the tale is between Quint and the boy Miles, with its hints of pedophilia and the corruption of innocence, a subject close to Britten who was a (non-sexual) pedophile and who was probably sexually abused as a pubescent boy himself. The first singer of the role of Miles was the young David Hemmings, who went on to become a movie star (in "Blow-Up," among others), and who then went on to a strange career as a television director ("Magnum, P.I." among other oddities) before his recent death.
In Humphrey Carpenter's pedestrian biography of Britten, there is a fascinating quote from the adult David Hemmings after the author asked him about what kind of hanky-panky went on between the young Hemmings and the besotted composer while they created "The Turn of The Screw," which premiered in Venice. This is part of Hemming's response:
"He [Britten] was incredibly warm to me, yes. Was he infatuated with me? Yes, he was. He was a gentleman; there was no sort of overt sexuality about it whatsoever. It was a very kind and very loving and very gentle relationship.
Did he kiss me? Yes, he did. But that was more my need as a young boy alone in his house than it was any threat. I slept in his bed, when I was frightened, and I still felt no sexual threat whatsoever. And I think it would have embarrassed him a damn sight more than it would have embarrassed me at the time.
Of all the people I have worked with, I count my relationship with Ben to have been one of the finest. And also my relationship with Peter too. And it was never, under any circumstances, threatening. Was I aware of his homosexuality? Yes, I was. Was I aware that he had a proclivity for young boys? Yes, I was. Did I feel that he was desperately fond of me? I suppose I did, but I must say I thought far more in a sort of fatherly fashion; and I had a very bad father-son relationship...There is no man in my entire life that has been more influential on my attitudes than Ben."
The opera turned out to be even more extraordinary live than I had imagined, after listening to the Britten recording for the last 20 years. The 13 musicians in the pit, conducted by Barnaby Palmer, were so good that they deserve to be named individually: Rita Lee, Joyce Lee, Stephanie Ng, Kelley Maulbetsch, Andy Butler (strings), Michelle Caimotto (flute), Ann Lavin (clarinet), Max Hollander (oboe), Karla Ekholm (bassoon, above), David Sprung (horn), Wendy Tamis (harp), Cesar Cancino (piano)...
...and above all the percussionist Michael Passaris (above) who played an entire gamelan orchestra's worth of instruments.
The singers were all good, too, and in the cases of Trey Costerisan as Peter Quint and the young Kathleen Moss as the old housekeeper Mrs. Grose, they were genuinely outstanding.
There was only one problem, however, and it was a major one. The young director, Heather Carolo (above), did a terrible job of simply staging the story. I'd seen a production she directed for the Conservatory of Music's production of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a "Carmen" last year for Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, and the story was the same both times. Good singers, great musicians, and awful staging seems to be her personal hallmark.
In other words, I will not be rushing to see her destruction of "Aida" later in the season for the company. Still, I would recommend this production if only to hear this music live. You can always just close your eyes for the dumber directorial decisions.