The most haunting image of “The Turn of the Screw” is the final one. Young Miles has recently collapsed at center stage, but on the scrim behind his limp body he slowly rises, stares blankly at the audience, and raises one hand.
His silent expression beckons –- come with me.
Come to Madison Opera’s production of “The Turn of the Screw,” playing through Sunday in the Overture Center Playhouse, with a willingness to make believe. Unanswered questions and strange circumstances are part of the appeal of this chamber opera’s sleek storytelling.
Britten based his 1954 opera on the Henry James novella of the same name, a late-19th century ghost story. An unnamed governess is instructed to watch over two orphans at a massive country house, but she is not to contact their guardian. Soon, ghosts of former residents begin to trouble her and the children, whose souls they covet.
Director Doug Scholz-Carlson’s staging is at once sparse and richly theatrical, using scrims, lights and stylized movement to create a mood of spooky unreality. He makes generous use of the Playhouse thrust stage, as principal soprano Caroline Worra dangles her legs inches from the front row of seats.
Worra as the governess appears more experienced than James’ 20-year-old heroine, and thus more suspect in her motivations. Would she manufacture trouble for the children for an excuse to write to their guardian, whom she clearly loves?
Either way, Worra is a fine dramatic performer, with a bright, clear soprano. When the governess frets before meeting the children in the first scene, Worra’s voice reveals doubt but her tone never falters.
As housekeeper Mrs. Grose, Julia Faulkner’s warm soprano is at once versatile and comforting. Mrs. Grose is determined not to accept responsibility for the goings-on in the house (which likely include abuse) and Faulkner shows regret, fear and enforced happiness in the space of a few phrases.
Tenor Gregory Schmidt is more menacing than seductive as Quint, truly haunting as he calls to Miles from the wings. His duet with Jamie Van Eyck as his former lover, Miss Jessel, is a high point of the show; Van Eyck’s mezzo voice is as graceful as it is forceful.
The children, played by Alistair Sewell and Jennifer DeMain, struggle at times with unison pitches but otherwise add a refreshing energy to the production. DeMain has mastered the petulant pout and the childish temper tantrum, hurling invective at the governess without missing a note.
John DeMain conducts a small orchestra of symphony players from behind a scrim, bringing out Britten’s chaos of textures and ever-changing keys with a careful eye toward the dramatic.
Erik E. Paulson’s gorgeous set and lighting design make the story come alive while grounding it in fantasy. He makes towers fade, windows melt away and long shadows become real ghosts, flickering, waiting, beckoning in the dark.
Note: Tickets to remaining productions of Madison Opera’s “Turn of the Screw” are sold out; call the Overture Center box office to ask about last minute returns: 258-4141.
IF YOU GO
What: Madison Opera presents “The Turn of the Screw”
Where: The Playhouse, Overture Center
When: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20, $52
Info: madisonopera.org; Overture Center box office, 258-4141