It’s not often opera tries to be creepy.

But Benjamin Britten’s 1954 adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw,” a ghost story by Henry James, is definitely spooky. A governess sees ghostly visions. Children might be possessed. And just like in great horror films, the setting is an isolated country house.

“It’s written, in a way, like a film script,” said Doug Scholz-Carlson, who directs Madison Opera’s production, opening Thursday in the Playhouse. “It demands that the audience’s imagination goes along with it. What is grounded in reality and what is existing in imagination — you can’t ever quite know.”

The title of “The Turn of the Screw” appears on the first page of James’ 1898 novella of the same name. It’s a reference to medieval torture: put a man on a rack, and “another turn of the screw” would kill him. James is notoriously ambiguous, but this seems to reference the dramatic tensions in the story, which involve the abuse and ghostly possession of children.

“The Turn of the Screw” begins when a governess agrees to travel to a country house to care for two orphaned children. She has explicit instructions never to contact her employer, even as she begins to see spirits hovering and calling to young Miles and Flora. The late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, former employees of the house, may have abused the children, and the governess fears the spirits have returned for their souls.

Britten, best known for his 1962 “War Requiem,” turned the story into a succinct chamber opera in 1954 with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, the wife of Britten’s friend John Piper. Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain described the score as a theme echoed, sometimes subtly, in 15 variations. This four-note musical pattern is present in some way virtually all the time.

“There’s a rumor going around that this is an atonal opera, and it’s not atonal at all,” DeMain explained at Opera Up Close, Madison Opera’s pre-show event held at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art last Sunday. “The craft of Britten is simply awesome. The way it is written, the acting of it makes so much sense. He has an unerring sense of theater.”

Madison Opera is embracing the sinister nature of the piece, amplified in Britten’s evocative score. The furniture is all black lacquer. The production uses candles, white curtains, shadow and darkness to create a mood.

Scholz-Carlson’s staging aims to emphasize the ambiguity in the story. Are the ghosts real, or just figments of the governess’ imagination? He hopes audience members will have different opinions. The tale is full of secrets, from the mysterious deaths of Quint and his lover (Miss Jessel) to the real reason young Miles was kicked out of school.

“Britten also does what (Stephen) Sondheim does, in terms of building character information into the score,” Scholz-Carlson said. “We learn things about the characters because of the music. Sometimes what they’re saying means one thing and the music is telling you something else.

“I was watching Alistair (Sewell), the young man who’s playing Miles, and he was doing the lesson scene where he’s supposed to be reading from the book. The music is very complicated there, and he looked like a schoolboy trying to get his lesson right. He didn’t have to do any acting at all. The music was doing it all for him.”

Caroline Worra plays the governess fighting for the souls of Miles and his sister, Flora, played by Jennifer DeMain. It’s the second time Worra’s played the role, she said, which allows her to “dig deeper” without fretting about getting every note of Britten’s notoriously difficult 20th century music correct.

“The music sets up a whole different world, a whole different palette,” Worra said of Britten’s modern composition style. “It’s great that it’s in English, because (the audience is) grasping the story. And then all the colors of the music are pushing us forward, making us wonder what’s coming next.”

Certain motifs, for example, introduce the ghosts. Local tenor Gregory Schmidt plays Quint, a menacing, even evil presence.

Britten “wrote such amazing music for the ghosts,” Schmidt said. “There’s a definite aspect of cruelty to the character, but he can also be quite charming and seductive. I’m playing him as the character would have been when alive, with a lot of charisma and a strong personality.”

Schmidt is one of several locals in the production, including voice professor Julia Faulkner as housekeeper Mrs. Grose and mezzo-soprano (and UW-Madison doctoral student) Jamie Van Eyck as Miss Jessel. Scholz-Carlson is from Minnesota, returning to Madison Opera after directing “The Tender Land” in 2008.

With its small cast and 13-member orchestra, “The Turn of the Screw” moves quickly for opera, running just two hours with an intermission.

The Playhouse invites an intimacy with the performers and the story, a marked contrast to “Carmen,” Madison Opera’s sold-out season opener.

With “Carmen,” “part of the thrill is the size of it,” said Brian Hinrichs, a spokesman for Madison Opera. “This is very different and some people will find that more appealing. It’s important to play to both of those,” the large-scale and small.

“For people that have never been to an opera, (‘The Turn of the Screw’) is a great piece of theater,” Worra said. “At the same time, it’s a wonderful opera to revisit.”

IF YOU GO

What: Madison Opera presents "The Turn of the Screw"

Where: The Playhouse,

Overture Center, 201 State St.

When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 31, 2:30 p.m.

Tickets: $20, $52

Info: madisonopera.org; Overture Center box office, 258-4141

 

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