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Berkshire Opera Performs First-Rate `Turn of the Screw'

THOUGH musical life in the Berkshire Mountains is clearly dominated by activities at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home, the 10-year-old Berkshire Opera Company is modestly yet effectively making its mark here, filling a conspicuous cultural gap for opera lovers.

Founded by Englishman Rex Hearn, the chamber-sized company is now under the artistic direction of Joel Revzen and dedicated to developing an appreciation of opera by performing in English, using the talents of younger, up-and-coming vocalists and a solid chamber orchestra, currently the Albany, N.Y.-based St. Cecilia Orchestra.

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The company presents two productions each summer, one a fairly standard work and the other a 20th-century opera written in English. This summer, Rossini's ``The Italian Girl in Algiers'' is complemented by Benjamin Britten's ``The Turn of the Screw,'' an intimate, well-crafted production of Henry James's eerie supernatural tale of a governess and her two wards tormented by ghosts from the past.

The Berkshire Opera Company's production is first rate, with fluid direction from Mary Duncan and an intriguingly surreal set by Marsha Ginsberg. Under the baton of artistic director Joel Revzen, the St. Cecilia Orchestra does an excellent job bringing cohesion and spirit to Britten's colorful orchestration and vibrant rhythms.

For the most part, the opera is comprehensible from the libretto (by Welsh poet Myfawny Piper), featuring strong singers with admirable diction and projection. Joanna Johnston was expressive and affecting as the Governess, with a powerful soprano and strong presence. Carl Halvorson was magnetic as the evil Peter Quint, his high-range tenor never losing depth and substance. Trudy Weaver was an effective Mrs. Grose, and Christine Akre was spectral in a physical portrayal of Miss Jessel. Maria Jette was charmingly girlish as the young Flora, and Julius Robins was creditable as Miles.

The biggest drawback is the limitations of the Cranwell Opera House, originally the chapel of a Jesuit boys' school. The 500-seat domed hall, which sits on the hilltop of the opulent Cranwell resort in Lenox, badly needs acoustic attention. The only plus is that the intimate seating allows for judicious lip-reading. And for opera lovers not fluent in many languages, seeing an opera in English is a treat.

* The final performance is tomorrow.

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