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Operatic survival in the Rockies with a poisoned kiss

The Central City Opera has survived Colorado’s gambling boom and now, as the town around it fades, is operating at a world-class standard – in what feels like the height of sociological incongruity.

This summer’s production of The Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten’s elusive opera about children possessed by ghosts, took me deeper into the piece’s darker-than-dark heart more than any previous encounter – on a brilliantly sunny Wednesday afternoon while, outside, denizens of the lingering gambling trade were dropped off and picked up by express buses from Denver, some of them (I’m told) gambling away their rent money.

After performances, the singers often go back to their residences for their makeup removal, so moving through the crowds, Vale Rideout and John Healy exited the theater, the former still in the ghostly white makeup of his character of Peter Quint, the latter with eerily dappled red cheeks that externalize the inner bruises of the victimized child Miles. Welcome to Central City, whose meticulously preserved Victorian architecture is the backdrop to what is certainly Americana at its most surreal.

As for the opera company, a key figure both in this intensely gripping production – and the slow entry of Turn of the Screw to the standard repertoire canon – is conductor Steuart Bedford, also exiting the backstage with his flowing white hair, receiving congratulations from everyone in sight. The ultimate compliment: “I feel eviscerated!” Among other things, Britten’s treatment of the Henry James tale deals with child abuse – quite on the public’s mind these days. And the eerie frankness of Alessandro Talevi’s production made the experience uncomfortable in all of the right ways.

This is one case when intermission departures – there were a few – are a compliment. Among those who stayed, you could feel certain sections of the audience fighting the piece, rebelling against its inexorable tension with murmuring and even a bit of giggling at some of the more operatic gestures in the piece’s paranormal moments. Such listeners, too, were conquered by the end.

More or less, I stumbled upon the production while in Central City working on a documentary film concerning one of the company’s lower-profile presentations, the often-performed one-act Henry Mollicone opera The Face on the Barroom Floor. Rest assured, I’m not on the Central City Opera’s payroll and paid for my Turn of the Screw rush ticket, if only to experience the theater that’s a product of the Gold Rush days when Central City was central to Colorado, even more than Denver.

Easterners certainly hear about Central City Opera regularly and its remarkable history, not just in the now-famous singers who have passed through its apprentice program. Posters in and around the opera company’s buildings recall the town’s past as a theater festival as well, from Myrna Loy in Barefoot in the Park (directed by Mike Nichols) to Mae West in Diamond Lil.

The company has had its ups and downs and even years when there was no opera at all. Many longtime resident left Central City for any number of reasons when gambling came in during the early 1990s, turning its historically preserved Victorian architecture into a mere façades for a dozen or so casinos. Gambling thrived for a while, until the town down the road, Black Hawk, turned itself into a glitzy, mini-Vegas. The smartly renovated Reserve Hotel, where I’m staying, maintains its presence partly due to its excellent access for the handicapped; gamblers arrive with oxygen tanks, wheel chairs, motorized scooters….

The opera company was protected from the rising property prices during the boom years; it owns numerous properties where its singers and instrumentalists can be housed for the summer. In fact, the opera used its property holdings to cut some intelligent deals with a major gambling company, resulting in an endowment that peaked around $10 million.

Now, with many of the townies long gone (and with them, basic services) you’re lucky to find anything resembling a 7-11 store amid moderately populated casinos. The operatic voices practicing in one building or another often feel like the town’s only consistent human presence – along with the black-clothed instrumentalists making their way down the road for a performance, whether of Britten or La Boheme or an uncut, three-hour version of Oklahoma!

Turn of the Screw is the one hard-sell item of the season – next year, it’s Ned Rorem’s Our Town – and the resourcefulness of the production is of a calibre that couldn’t be a fluke, but the product of a well-oiled opera machine. You don’t think about doing Turn of the Screw unless there’s a boy soprano who can carry the role of the intermittently-possessed Miles. Also, the opera’s subtle theme-and-variations construction can seem so inward as to be downright private with a lesser conductor than Bedford, who revealed the score’s inner workings with each contrapuntal strand and dramatic flourish having its own distilled, distinct color. Thus, one’s ear was drawn in with a certain visceral allure that also illuminated the opera’s more cerebral elements. No opera has a sound envelop like this one, with its eerie use of upper-register harp and celesta that sounds like Pandora’s music box.

The edgy production effectively used silhouettes and shadows to suggest the encroaching presence of ghosts in this story of a governess sent to care for wealthy but orphaned children who are haunted by the spirits of tortured, malevolent spirits. The story parallels the Schubert song, Die Erlkoenig: The primary ghost, Peter Quint, is trying to claim the soul of young and living Miles out from under his mortal protectors – though with strong sexual overtones. In one nocturnal scene when Quint is calling out to Miles with something of a siren song, the boy shed his night shirt, wandered about to greet the ghost wearing only shorts and with black streaks (claw marks?) across his body. Then, at the end of the scene when Quint is vanquished, the still-possessed Miles bids goodnight to his terror-stricken governess with a provocative kiss on the lips.

Other great touches: The Governess is a photography buff, a conceit used to view settings with optical distortions, most effectively an upside down church that symbolizes the opposite of holiness. Also, Peter Quint’s ghostly accomplice Miss Jessel (sung by Rebecca Nash) who died distantly and mysterious, returns as an intermittently pregnant ghost.

The cast was uniformly distinguished, both theatrically and vocally. Naturally, the two adversaries claimed the most applause. Vocally, Rideout triumphantly brought his own personality to vocal lines that carry the stamp of Peter Pears, the tenor for which they were written. Theatrically, the ghost character can be gothic to the point of vulgarity. Not here.

Intentionally or not, Sinead Mulhern resembled the great British operatic icon, Kathleen Ferrier, whose public persona embodies the attractive fusion of passion and naivete of the governess who is in far over her head with the paranormal activities and demonic possession. The balance between articulation of the words and vocal weight (necessary to telegraph the importance of the opera’s subtext) is rarely achieved, but Mulhern came closer than most. And Healy’s stage savvy as Miles was extraordinary.

Mis-steps were only details here and there. When Miles appeared with black streaks on his body (suggesting something merciless had been clawing him), his sister Flora (beautifully played by Alisa Suzanne Jordheim) arrived in punk rock makeup suggesting that she had been victimized by an eccentric fashion decision. The fact that one notices these things at all is due to one of the primary luxuries of the Central City Opera – the intimately-scaled, acoustically-excellent theater that brings the audiences into whatever world is unfolding on its stage far more invitingly than most big-theater productions of Turn of the Screw.

More later (as film production time permits).


  1. It is a lovely place for opera BUT in the recent past someone, doubtless from a BIG opera background decided that English is not a good language. It was a delight to hear an opera in a language and in a house where it could be understood. So why take a hour or more trip up into the mountains to hear an opera sung in the “original” language when you can hear it the same in Seattle, Portland, San Diego, New York, DC. But then on second thought it makes little difference. Todays singers are more interested in making pretty sounds than sounds you can understand. They can’t sing English so cna they really sing French or Italian any better?

    But it is a wondeful theater, even better now that they have seats rather than chairs.

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