Milo Boland is a troubled boy and Laura Bohn his governess in  The Turn of the Screw  at West Edge Opera.MELLOPIX/FOR WEST EDGE OPERA
Milo Boland is a troubled boy and Laura Bohn his governess in The Turn of the Screw at West Edge Opera. MELLOPIX/FOR WEST EDGE OPERA ( weo )

There's a wonderful moment in the new West Edge Opera production of "The Turn of the Screw" in which a pair of ghosts appear by the side of a lake. Looming large and eerily transparent in their unearthly bodies, they sing of earthly desires and torments.

Benjamin Britten's haunting 1954 chamber opera, adapted from Henry James' novella, isn't as often performed as the composer's large-scale masterworks such as "Peter Grimes" and "Billy Budd." But it casts a mesmerizing spell in this production, which opened Saturday at the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater. Directed by West Edge general director Mark Streshinsky, it's a worthy addition to the many tributes being performed in the Bay Area this year in honor of the Britten centenary.

Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper were drawn to the story of two orphaned Victorian children, the ghosts of the servants who haunt them, and the young governess who tries to deliver them from evil. Piper's libretto gives voice to the ghosts (who never speak in James' original), making them characters in the drama. Britten's ingenious score, structured as a prologue and 15 variations divided by orchestral interludes, is one of his most luminous creations, with shimmering strings, baleful woodwinds, harps and bells evoking the opera's otherworldly atmosphere of innocence and corruption.

In the opening scene, a male narrator tells us how the governess came to Bly, the English country house where the children, Miles and Flora, have been left by their perennially absent guardian. One condition of her employment is that she can never contact him.

Once she arrives at Bly, the governess meets Mrs. Grose, the elderly housekeeper, who reveals that Peter Quint, the master's former valet, spent extended periods alone with Miles and "had his will" with the former governess, Miss Jessel. Both Quint and Miss Jessel have since died, but the shadow of abuse -- perhaps sexual, although it's never clearly articulated -- remains a palpable presence.

Streshinsky has staged the opera for clarity, keeping the blocking simple and linking Britten's short episodes in a seamless flow. The director makes effective use of Jeremy Knight's video projections to evoke the English countryside, create the Bly interiors and imbue the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel with ectoplasmic effects. As the opera moved to its gripping conclusion, the results were potent.

On opening night, soprano Laura Bohn gave a thrilling performance as the governess. Vocally resplendent and dramatically acute, she sang with fresh tone in her early scenes, gradually shading the voice with a darker, edgier sound as the extent of her predicament came to light. Tenor Daniel Curran started the evening as an elegant Prologue and returned as the imposing ghost of Quint; both roles were written for Britten's partner, tenor Peter Pears, and Curran sang both with distinction. Buffy Baggott's plush mezzo-soprano was an asset as the insinuating and uncommonly glamorous Miss Jessel. Soprano Jillian Khuner exuded warmth as the kindly Mrs. Grose. As Miles and Flora, Milo Boland and Larkin Barnard-Bahn were both well-cast; alternate performances will feature Arman Marchiel and Amelia Meacham in the children's roles.

Music director Jonathan Khuner, leading a 12-member ensemble in the pit, conducted Britten's score with urgency, tightening the musical "screw" for maximum theatrical impact. For Britten aficionados, West Edge's production shouldn't be missed.

West Edge, by the way, is embarking on a new association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In his preshow remarks on opening night, Streshinsky said his company will present two concert performances of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" at the Rep's Thrust Stage this fall; the cast will feature Marie Plette, Jonathan Boyd and Philip Skinner. Performances are Sept. 21-22; tickets will be available on the West Edge website starting Aug. 1.

'THE TURN OF THE SCREW'

By Benjamin Britten and Myfanwy Piper, adapted from the story by Henry James, presented by West Edge Opera

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito
Tickets: $20-$78, 510-841-1903, www.westedgeopera.org