By Ted AYALA
Pacific Opera Project, or POP as its known to fans, has emerged in recent years as one of Southern California’s most exciting opera companies. Not the very least because of its irreverent and often outrageous productions of repertory classics.
A “La Bohème” set among Highland Park hipsters? Check. “The Marriage of Figaro” as 1980s drug war that seemed more “Miami Vice” and Brian de Palma’s “Scarface” than Beaumarchais? Double check.
And how many opera companies do you know have a mascot? A “Hipster Puccini,” no less.
The production of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” which is based on the eponymous story by Henry James, represented a new direction for POP. It was dour, grim, serious; a 180-degree turn from previous productions.
Looking for laughs? Not here. “Turn of the Screw” was its most conservative production to date – not a bad thing. For one, the listener was better able to hear that this is a company with a unique vision and a talented roster of musicians, qualities that can be easily overlooked under the surface of their more flamboyant productions.
The names of most of the musicians involved – including the excellent 13-piece orchestra conducted by Stephen Karr – should be familiar and welcome faces to audiences familiar with Los Angeles’ burgeoning indie classical scene. But for those who rarely venture beyond Disney Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and find it difficult to believe that some of the most exciting and vital music in the region today is being made outside those established institutions – well, you need to get out more.
POP’s “Turn of the Screw” was another first for the company in that it was its first production staged outside of the northeast Los Angeles area. Presented at the small Rosenthal Theatre of Inner-City Arts just south of downtown Los Angeles and Little Tokyo, POP artistic director Josh Shaw turned the venue’s very small space to his advantage. The seemingly wholesome Victorian realism of the staging was riddled with Expressionist grotesquerie courtesy of lighting director Ryan Shull and was complemented by garish horror movie make-up by Maggie Green that perfectly befitted the characters of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.
At the Rosenthal, the audience didn’t watch the drama unfold so much as it was dropped haplessly like a basket of shoestring potatoes into a deep-fryer and immersed in it. The claustrophobic production sharpened the drama’s edge and, as in the opera’s final minutes, could be hair-raisingly intense.
The POP production also bared the dark heart that beats at the depths of this 1954 score, one of Britten’s most chilling. Streaked through with themes of sexual obsession, innocence corrupted and predatory pedophilia, Shaw preferred to let the ambiguity in the score speak for itself, allowing it to simmer in the mind as the listener turned over its disturbing implications.
Half of the singing cast was new to POP, beginning with the rich soprano of Rebecca Sjöwall who adroitly captured the Governess’ helplessness before the specters of the netherworld. Jennifer Wallace provided plenty of warmth in her Mrs. Grouse, though she permitted a patrician distance that grazed her role with an appropriately icy patina. Clay Hilley and Marina Harris, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel respectively as well as POP veterans, brought to their roles a terror that could almost be suffocating. Even spookier were Katy Tang as Flora and Ariel Downs as Miles; blissful and pure one moment, channeling the spookiness of the “Children of the Corn” the next. Downs together with Hilley provided many of the production’s most haunting moments, where they crept up to the very edge of the abyss of the strange, sexually charged dynamic that throbbed between them.
With its sober presentation of Britten’s opera, the Dorothy Chandler crowd that might raise eyebrows over POP’s other productions may just start to pay attention to the company. They’ll be late to the party. Because as anybody who has been following this company since its beginnings can tell you, POP has been one of the brightest spots in local classical music for awhile now; a testament to the continuing evolution and viability of an art form that, despite the many that have declared its post-mortem, continues to thrive.
Opera lives in Los Angeles. POP will help ensure that.