The Turn of the Screw: A Visually and Mentally Haunting Experience

Review of The Turn of the Screw at Seattle Opera. Written by TeenTix Press Corps Writer Sumeya Block and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member Hannah Schoettmer!
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Seattle Opera's newest opera, an adaptation of the book The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, will leave you forever haunted by the spirits that reside in the Bly mansion. In mere minutes, we are staring into a somber world cast by phantom-like blue walls. What was most memorable to me in The Turn of The Screw was the attention put into the set. When looking at the stage, it was the little things I noticed, like the blue plaid design of the governesses skirt, or the haunting lights that illuminated the children’s mischievous faces. Seeing these set details, created by scenic designer Robert Dahlstrom, lighting designer Connie Yun, and production designer Adam Larsent, communicated to me the thoughts put into helping tell each piece of the story.


The Turn of the Screw by Seattle Opera. Photo by Philip Newton.

The set transported us into the world of a traditionally spooky haunted house. What begins as a brick wall against a gray background transforms into a stately home and a dreary lake. This wall gives us a glimpse into the lives of the two haunted souls who reside in the Bly Manor. This is very central to the story because everything we see is from the governess's perspective. Some may even say the governess is mad, which can be interpreted from the dialogue in the book. In turn, this wall represents the governess's mind and shows that perhaps some things have not played out the way we, the audience, have interpreted them to be. All this is woven together by some great lighting, one wall, and a powerful projector. In these scenes, color is used in a very clever and mysterious way. In Act One, the set is washed in a mundane gray that evokes a feeling of normality, or the very cliche saying “same old, same old.” As the story progresses, the color theme changes to undertones of blue. The transition to these colors gradually overwhelms the longer the governess stays at Bly Manor and the more invested we are in the plot.

At the climax, we first catch a glimpse of the ghost of Peter Quint. His set is bathed in dark blue, despite being outside, foreshadowing our meeting him and hinting that there may be more to what we see. Later on, we see a chair washed in purple light, a murky lake with hidden secrets, and two twin beds left in the kind of darkness that makes you want to wrap a blanket around yourself and cower. These color choices and themes allude to a feeling of mystery and suspense that excites us and suggests a ghostly encounter by using colors that are mysterious and dark to remind us something's not quite right. These undertones also appear in the carefully curated clothing each character wears. My favorite costume, designed by the costume designer Deborah Trout, is that of Miss Jessel, consisted of an eerie plum colored dress.


The Turn of the Screw by Seattle Opera. Photo by Philip Newton.

When watching this opera, giving astute attention how the set changes can really shape our interpretation of what is happening, and it is brilliantly done. The strong vocals have haunting undertones and evoke passionate performance with ghostly voices that stayed in my mind and gave me chills, adding to the drama. At times, the Governess (Elizabeth Caballero) and the woeful songs of the spirits, Miss Jessel (Marcy Stonikas) and Peter Quint (Benjamin Bliss), add to our understanding and leave goosebumps. Much of the dialogue is very important to what is happening and can be misinterpreted, because it is fast and abrupt, even with subtitles. I felt that the dialogue was a key part of the plot. At some times hearing it in the form of opera did not have a lasting taste that resonated with me—the dialogue could have been emphasized more. It did not make the impact that it could have and that, in many instances, is important to understanding character growth.

The Turn of The Screw is a riveting and intriguing story with a cast of actors who bring to life to the roles they play and add a fresh take to an important and well-know book. As you rise from your seat for the standing ovation, which is well deserved, know you will leave with goosebumps and the realization of the haunting reality of what may lay behind life's curtain.


The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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