Britten’s spooky ‘Turn of the Screw’ typifies Opera Baltimore’s creativity

This semi-staged concert opera presentation was a wonderful introduction to the phenomenal company's range of work.

The Turn of the Screw is a strange opera. Based on the 1898 horror novella by Henry James, this opera with music composition by Benjamin Britten, and a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, tells the sordid tale of a governess who arrives at Bly Manor to care for two children and discovers that not everything is as it seems. Opera Baltimore (formerly known as the Baltimore Concert Opera) chose this intriguing piece to inaugurate its new name. Directed by Catrin Davies and conducted by Michael Sakir, this semi-staged concert opera presentation of The Turn of the Screw was a wonderful introduction to the range of work that Opera Baltimore presents.

Amanda Sheriff as Miss Jessel in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan for Opera Baltimore.

Britten’s composition is spooky and discordant. It feels almost panicked, especially with the strong dissonance of the piano and vocals. Soprano Colleen Daly sings the part of the unlucky Governess. She gives a well-rounded performance. Her ability to sing into the emotional undertones of this disturbing opera makes her perfect for the role. She is an especially good foil to maid Mrs. Grose, played by mezzo-soprano Annie Chester, whose slightly deeper tones provide rich depth to their material. Both women also have acting skill, which is necessary to communicate the story, especially in a concert staging.

Tenor Norman Shankle is the ominous and antagonistic Peter Quint. Shankle’s warmth and clarity are attractive, even though his character is particularly odious. Peter Quint is most of the reason for the content warnings that you may see associated with The Turn of the Screw. His relationship with Mrs. Jessel, a role performed here by commanding and clear-as-a-bell soprano Amanda Sheriff, is as disturbing as it is intriguing. Throughout the opera, we learn more about this diabolical pair. The brilliance of the story lies in its ambiguity. Are Peter Quint and Mrs. Jessel living people? Malevolent spirits? Something else?

Colleen Daly as the Governess and Brynn Blair as Miles in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan for Opera Baltimore.

The main action of the opera revolves around the behavior of the children and the Governess’ subsequent bewilderment at the seemingly demonic occurrences around them. Brynn Blair plays the brother of the pair of siblings, Miles. This is her Opera Baltimore debut and she does an admirable job of living up to the caliber of artists that this company attracts. Soprano Robin Steitz plays Miles’ sister Flora. She is believably youthful, even with her powerful delivery. Both help this production stand out.

Opera Baltimore sold out both showings of The Turn of the Screw, and it’s no surprise as to why. For a smaller company, they attract top-tier talents. It’s wonderful to see that they are branching out to full-scale productions. Next on the schedule is a fully staged production of Verdi’s La Traviata, to be performed at Stephens Hall at Towson University this coming March. Their next event, however, is their 2022 Gala. Dinner, auction, and performances by opera star Kevin Short (among others) will be featured this year. It will be held at the gorgeous Engineers Club in Baltimore on December 8.

Opera Baltimore proves that storms can be weathered. After the pandemic, this phenomenal company emerged bigger and better and with the promise of a bright future. The welcoming atmosphere of their productions will appeal to anyone who is interested in experiencing one of the best opera companies in the mid-Atlantic. The Turn of the Screw, with its moody and mysterious storyline, typifies the range and creativity of Opera Baltimore. I can’t wait to see more!

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes.

The Turn of the Screw played on November 18 and 20, 2022, presented by Opera Baltimore performing at the Engineers Club, 11 West Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD. Tickets were $29–$107. The Pay Opera Forward program provides free tickets to those who cannot afford one. To request a ticket through this program, simply email  info@operabaltimore.org with “Pay Opera Forward ticket request” in the subject line, and you will receive a code to access a free ticket, no questions asked.

The playbill for The Turn of the Screw is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged, but not required. Opera Baltimore’s complete Health and Safety policy is here.

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