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Opera review: Against the Grain's Turn of the Screw the best sort of Britten

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Johane Ansell as Flora, Miriam Khalil (The Governess), Megan Latham (Mrs Grose) and Sebastian Gayowsky (Miles) in Act I of Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Turn of the Screw (Darryl Block photo).

Against the Grain Theatre has, with its first attempt to mount opera in a traditional theatre space, achieved that rarest of wonders: a production that succeeds on all levels.

Based on Saturday’s show, it’s difficult to imagine Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper’s 1954 adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw done any better than at the hands of this remarkably talented group of young artists.

Even the solo-piano accompaniment on a battered upright, the most glaring concession to a tight budget, was so finely nuanced by music director Christopher Mokrzewski that the lack of an orchestra barely made itself felt.

In short, the company’s four-performance run at University of Toronto’s Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, with the last curtain on Sunday evening, is one of the highlights on what has been a rich and diverse season of opera in Toronto.

The suspenseful tale of a newly arrived governess contending with two ghosts of household employees past out to get her two charges is impeccably distilled by Piper into a series of scenes that make its audience uncomfortable in several different ways. The story is claustrophobic, a feeling reinforced by the staging, set in a confined, narrow space between the rows of banked seating.

The visual magic by designer Camellia Koo is achieved with period costumes (by Erika Connor) and a bare minimum of props — all enhanced by Jason Hand’s clever lighting. Director Joel Ivany keeps movement to a strict minimum, allowing all the focus to fall on the gradually tightening vise grip of tension.

The vocal and dramatic magic comes from a superb cast, led by soprano Miriam Khalil as the Governess. Mezzo Megan Latham is a warm, powerful Mrs Grose. Tenor Michael Barrett is villany at its most raw as Peter Quint and soprano Betty Allion is equally strong as the late previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The children are nicely portrayed by (adult) soprano Johane Ansell and treble Sebastian Gayowsky, a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company who deserves an extra gold star for his steely focus.

It’s also remarkable that the cast was able to pull off Britten’s complex ensemble work flawlessly without the benefit of a conductor.

Experiencing operatic singing at full power in close quarters further underlined the intensity of the unfolding drama. It also would have underlined any flaws in the production — if there had been any.

So here’s Against the Grain’s secret to putting on a great night of opera: Assemble the best singers you can find, put all of the focus on character and story, and then get out of the way.

If this is what Canada’s younger talents have to offer, then look out, world.

For production details, and to see if there may be a ticket or two left for Sunday’s performance, click here.

John Terauds

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