Phantoms in the opera

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Central City’s 2012 season offers an emotionally varied program. With the final opening night of the season Saturday, the ghosts of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw joined the starving artists of Puccini’s La Bohème and the homespun Americans of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! on the bill.


The contrast between the two full-scale operas is particularly intriguing. La Bohème offers a tragic love story told through gorgeous melodies and lush harmonies. In contrast, Turn of the Screw features a small orchestra whose spare sounds create an appropriately unsettling, if not exactly hummable, musical ambience for Henry James’ ambiguous tale of haunting and seduction. Both are the works of master dramatists, but they approach their audiences in very different ways.

As soon as the curtain goes up on La Bohème, Marcello’s abstract painting standing center stage shows that the production has been updated from the original Paris of the 1840s to the early 20th century — calling to mind the artists of America’s “Lost Generation” and Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. The effective production has numerous touches of the times, including costumes, electric lights and a typewriter.

The artists’ shabby garret was even more bare in the final act, both revealing the poverty of their hand-to-mouth existence and adding an extra touch of poignancy to Mimi’s death when she had no place to lie down but a bare mattress on the floor.

A strong cast is led by the Mimi of Elizabeth Caballero, who uses the dark coloration and strength of her voice to excellent effect. The male quartet of bohemian artists makes a first-rate ensemble.

Eric Margiore’s Rudolfo, looking anachronistically like a 1950’s Kerouac, has a pleasingly Italianate sound that was only occasionally strained. Troy Cook and Deborah Selig were well matched and effective as Marcello and Musetta.

The young cast looked their parts and acted effectively except in the third act, where the battle between Marcello and Musetta upstaged an awkwardly static Mimi-Rudolfo pair. This took much of the steam out of their love duet and sent the opera into the final act on a suppressed emotional level. Elsewhere, director Kevin Newberry deserves credit for strongly delineating the emotional dynamics of the characters.

Conductor John Baril led a firm, convincing performance, even though Central City’s small pit, tucked under the stage, allowed the strong voices to almost overwhelm the orchestra.

Turn of the Screw presents two challenges to producers. The dramatic challenge is to duplicate the ambiguities of James’ story — are the ghosts real, or in the governess’ fevered imagination? — with live actors on stage.

Central City’s production only fitfully meets this challenge.

Particularly effective use is made of projections, including views of the country house and its grounds as seen through the governess’ camera — an inspired invention for this production that literally turns the view upside down and symbolizes the governess’ ungrounding from reality.

On the other hand, I thought the emphasis on the governess’ sexual fantasies — toward the children’s guardian and especially the boy Miles — was too explicit. You don’t have to be a prude to think that some things are more effective if implied, especially in a ghost story.

Also upsetting the balance between real and unreal was the physicality of the “ghosts” and their direct interaction with the other characters. The story is better served if the two groups of characters inhabit separate planes and the ghostly characters do not step physically into the real world of the governess and the children.

The second challenge is musical: there are no low voices, with even the one tenor singing in his upper register. With all the parts colliding in a narrow range, individual voices too easily lose their identity. More dynamic nuance on the part of individual singers would have prevented portions of the score from sounding like a high-volume contest.

In the cast, Vale Rideout was an excellent Quint, creating the dangerous nature of his character through both gesture and voice. As the governess, Sinéad Mulhern powerfully portrayed her character’s increasingly unbalanced mind, aided by the excellent makeup of Dave Bova.

A special word must be given to the brave work of John Healy from the Colorado Children’s Chorale as Miles. He handled one of the great challenges to boy singers with outstanding success.

The orchestra under conductor Steuart Bedford played the difficult score on the highest professional level, and well deserved the ovation at the end.