Listening to Britten – The Turn of the Screw, Op.54


Middle Mill, Pembrokeshire (1982) by John Piper © The Piper Estate

The Turn of the Screw, Op.54 – Opera in a prologue and two acts, Op.54 (30 March – September 1954, Britten aged 40)

Dedication the members of the English Opera Group who took part in the first performance
Text Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James
Language English
Duration 101′

Audio and Video clips

Introducing The Turn of the Screw for the 2011 production at Glyndebourne.



Below are selected clips from the first recording of the opera, with Jennifer Vyvyan (Governess), Joan Cross (Mrs Grose), Peter Pears (Prologue and Quint), Olive Dyer (Flora), David Hemmings (Miles) and Arda Mandikian (Miss Jessel), with the English Opera Group Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.

Prologue

Act 1
Theme – Scene 1: The Journey (Governess)

Interlude: Variation I – Scene 2: The Welcome (Miles, Flora, Mrs Grose, Governess)

Interlude: Variation II – Scene 3: The Letter (Miles, Flora, Mrs Grose, Governess)

Interlude: Variation III – Scene 4: The Tower (Governess)

Interlude: Variation IV – Scene 5: The Window (Miles, Flora, Mrs Grose, Governess)

Interlude: Variation V – Scene 6: The Lesson (Miles, Flora, Governess)

Interlude: Variation VI – Scene 7: The Lake (Miles, Flora, Governess)

Interlude: Variation VII – Scene 8: At Night (Quint, Miles, Miss Jessel, Flora, Governess)

Act 2
Interlude: Variation VIII – Scene 1: Colloquy and So- lioquy (Quint, Miss Jessel, Governess)

Interlude: Variation IX – Scene 2: The Bells (Miles, Flora, Mrs Grose, Governess)

Interlude: Variation X – Scene 3: Miss Jessel (Governess, Miss Jessel)

Interlude: Variation XI – Scene 4: The Bedroom (Miles, Quint, Governess)

Interlude: Variation XII – Scene 5: Quint (Quint)

Interlude: Variation XIII – Scene 6: The Piano (Governess, Mrs Grose, Flora)

Interlude: Variation XIV – Scene 7: Flora (Governess, Mrs Grose, Flora)

Interlude: Variation XV – Scene 8: Miles (Miles, Quint, Governess, Mrs Grose)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s return to chamber-sized opera was a scary proposition – not just for the composer but for his audience too. The source material for his sixth opera came to Britten in 1932, a diary entry recording that he had heard ‘a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary play, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James’. He immediately read the novella, noting a few days later that it was ‘an incredible masterpiece’.

In the early 1950s Britten was mulling over the possibility of a film with the English Opera Group, and one of their members, Myfanwy Piper (wife of the artist John Piper) suggested through Peter Pears that he consider The Turn of the Screw. Humphrey Carpenter tells the story of the opera’s genesis, which was far from routine!

When asking Myfanwy why she thought it might be right for Britten, Carpenter got the following response: ‘I just thought it was. I knew he was interested in the effect of adult, or bad, ideas on the innocence of children. I also thought it was densely musical prose, which would suit his work.’

Little did Myfanwy know she was about to take a key role alongside Britten. Her biographer, Frances Spalding, writes, ‘As none of his previous operas had been sourced by prose as complex or dense as this, Britten asked Myfanwy for suggestions as to how James’s text should be treated. At this stage the idea was that someone else, perhaps William Plomer, would help write the libretto. But when ideas began to flow, they decided to proceed without the help of anyone else. In this way, Myfanwy became a librettist.’

Once again, Britten was looking at an untried collaboration, though this time with a good friend and established member of the English Opera Group. As Patricia Howard warned, ‘To transfer to the operatic stage a story so meticulously constructed to manipulate the responses of a reader poses enormous problems.’ Yet, as Spalding added, ‘through the writing of this and two other libretti, Myfanwy made a central contribution to the achievement of this great musical dramatist.’

The central theme, for James, as for Britten and Myfanwy, is the violation of innocence – and although Britten initially thought The Tower and the Lake would be an appropriate title for the opera, describing where the two ghosts are first seen, he eventually reneged. ‘I must confess I have a sneaking, horrid feeling that the original H.J. title describes the musical plan of the work exactly!’

The plot is indeed a chilling one. A young governess is summoned to a country house in Bly to care for two children, recruited by their uncle and guardian. She is asked never to contact him about their well being. Initially wary, she arrives at Bly and meets the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, who allays her fears. She meets the two children, Miles and Flora, and forms an immediate connection.

Then the troubles begin. The governess hears footsteps in the night and sees the image of a man on the tower of the house. After talking with Mrs Grose this appears to be the spectre of Peter Quint, a former manservant at the house, who has in some way corrupted Miles and the previous governess, Miss Jessel, with whom he had a sexual relationship. Her ghost appears to the governess across a lake shortly after.

Miles and Flora appear not to see the ghosts, but are aware of their presence and influence, and begin to play up. At the start of Act 2 the family attends church, and as the children sing songs the governess feels easier, but then alarms Mrs Grose with her tales of the ghosts. She is advised to write to the Uncle in London, but before the letter is posted the ghost of Quint appears again, instructing Miles to steal the letter. Flora then escapes to the lake, and on following her the governess sees the image of Miss Jessel again – after which Flora speaks of unmentionable things, and Mrs Grose removes her from the house. The governess confronts Miles about the missing letter, and he reveals the influence of Quint – before collapsing dead on the floor. The story ends with the governess in anguish at the outcome, the observer left with a number of questions on who saw the ghosts. Were they a product of the governess’s imagination?

At first The Turn of the Screw could not begin because of Britten’s involvement with Gloriana, which not only consumed his creativity but led to ructions within the English Opera Group. Composition was delayed by a year, with further wrangling among the members over Britten’s involvement with royalty. Even after that, further progress was thwarted by a bout of bursitis in Britten’s right shoulder, which stopped him writing. An operation was required, and he did not compose a note until late March 1954, by which time the preview was just five months away.

Further to this, even, was a crackdown by the police on homosexuality in the UK. Britten himself was questioned informally about his relationship with Pears, and it seems this may have caused him to delay work on the opera further, due to its allusions on the conduct of Quint towards Miles. Eventually, however, the work was finished, and premiered in Venice on 14 September 1954. Just a few weeks later Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the same cast, under the watchful eye of Britten, in its London premiere at Sadler’s Wells.

Claire Seymour, in her book The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion, concludes that ‘The four main issues of contention are the ‘reality’ of the ghosts, the reliability of the Governess, the integrity of the children’s innocence and the exact nature of their contamination by the ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel’. She says ‘the pair of ‘innocent’ and uninitiated children’ are ‘of the apprentice-Lucretia-Albert-Budd type, who are threatened and apparently destroyed by corruptive forces represented by two ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, of the Grimes-Tarquinius-Claggart model. Refereeing this battle between good and evil is the Governess who, like Vere and Gloriana, occupies a morally ambiguous middle ground between the forces of purity and depravity. She is tormented by self-doubt, suspicious of her own motives and fearful of her own culpability in the ensuing tragedy. It was surely this absence of moral absolutes which most strongly appealed to Britten.’

Britten decided the ghosts should take an active part in the opera, and they have singing parts, often carefully manipulated by the staging. Quint’s nocturnal appeal to Miles, meanwhile, was inspired by Peter Pears’s performance of an unaccompanied twelfth-century motet by Perotin, Beata Viscera, in a Suffolk church.

Musically, Britten turned the screw in a very calculated sense, for the opera begins with a six bar theme that undergoes a transformation through fifteen variations, rising in key (Act 1) and then falling the same way (Act 2).
Though the theme uses all twelve pitches Britten sticks resolutely to a tonal approach, though the bounds of this are stretched as the story becomes more fraught. With just six singers and thirteen instrumentalists, this is opera on a small performing scale, but if anything that brought an ever more musical and imaginative response from its composer. Britten was operating in an enclosed world and writing for friends and colleagues, just the way he liked it.

For many critics this and Billy Budd, two very different sound worlds, are Britten’s very finest stage works, proving his dramatic acumen within a huge range of musical parameters.

Thoughts

The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the creepiest opera experience you will ever have. Not only does James’s story update faithfully and vividly for the stage, but Britten cloaks it in music that only heightens the tension, creating a keen sense of claustrophobia in a big house in a way that would be witnessed in such popular big screen moments as The Woman in Black and The Shining. Quite how much these would owe to James is a moot point, but all three share the ability to keep their viewers – and listeners – utterly transfixed as the noose gradually tightens around them.

The pacing in this opera is absolutely and exquisitely precise. Even the opening recitative introduces a note of fear, the overactive Purcellian piano all the more disconcerting when it fades away, replaced by the instruments coming out of the mist. The governess has a bumpy ride in her coach to the house – which Britten memorably evokes – before the excited welcome, the children’s voices tripping over themselves. A frisson remains, however, with something otherworldly about the whirring of the harp behind them, giving the big house an enchanted air. The lovely solo ‘how beautiful it is’ from the Governess, briefly and blissfully unaware, offers fragrant contentment, but the spell has been cast.

Towards the end of the tower scene we hear the panic in her voice, and the instruments retreat warily. This is music of palpable fear, and it gets worse as the kids sing ‘Tom, Tom the piper’s son’ to the accompaniment of drum and pizzicato violin. This trick, beloved of the horror genre of late, gives the observer a false comfort – and sure enough, Quint’s image appears. Then, towards the end of ‘The Lake’ more terror sets in. ‘They are lost, lost!’ cries the governess, and then, with a swirl of the celesta, night closes in.

As Quint sings to Miles, the hold he has over the boy becomes clear, and then the feverish intensity as he hisses ‘what has she written?’ before commanding the boy to move the letter is evil personified, with paranoid pizzicato from the strings.

By now Britten has had considerable experience arranging for medium sized chamber ensembles, and the range of colours he elicits from his forces here is dizzying. Scarcely have such instrumental combinations sounded as ghostly and otherworldly as they do here, with percussion, harp and celesta used to fray the edges of the overall sound. The luminescence of female voices over the top only heightens the sense of enchantment, and when a male voice – Quint’s – is heard there is always a barrier between it and us.

Britten takes his word painting over and above the level of Winter Words, in the journey of the coach, the children at play, with every bound and somersault, and the brief innocence of the church scene – but just below the surface the tensions remain. As the second act progresses and the presence of the ghosts is ever more close at hand the tension reaches new heights through sudden jarring interjections from the ensemble, and unreasonably high notes for the ghost of Miss Jessel.

The climax is a kind of terrifying relief, the ending one of Britten’s most ambiguous. Miles may have died, but for what reason? Who is really responsible? It is fascinating conundrum that holds opera directors and audiences alike to this day, all taken in by Britten’s hypnotic and often terrifying music.

Recordings used

DVD

A live recording from the Schwetzingen SWR Festival, 1990

Richard Greager (Quint/Prologue), Helen Field (Governess), Menai Davies (Mrs Grose), Machiko Obata (Flora), Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR) / Steuart Bedford (Arthaus)

CD

Peter Pears (Prologue/Quint), Jennifer Vyvyan (Governess), Joan Cross (Mrs Grose), Olive Dyer (Flora), David Hemmings (Miles), Arda Mandikian (Miss Jessel), English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Ian Bostridge (Prologue/Peter Quint), Joan Rodgers (Governess), Jane Henschel (Mrs Grose), Caroline Wise (Flora), Julian Leang (Miles), Vivian Tierney (Miss Jessel), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Daniel Harding (Virgin Classics)

William Burden (Prologue/Peter Quint), Camilla Tilling (Governess), Anne-Marie Owens (Mrs Grose), Joanna Songi (Flora), Christopher Sladdin (Miles), Emma Bell (Miss Jessel), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Glyndebourne)

Britten’s recording once again belies its age, with some incredibly spooky effects around Pears’s voice in particular. David Hemmings inhabits the part of Miles, and once heard his piercing voice is never forgotten.

Daniel Harding’s live recording benefits from extraneous stage noise, so you can actually hear the children playing while they sing. It gives an idea of the dimensions of the room they are in too, which is helpful – and the ghosts, headed by Ian Bostridge, are brilliantly played.

The Glyndebourne recording is superb and beautifully packaged to boot. Camilla Tilling is a brilliant young governess out of her comfort zone, while Edward Gardner secures excellent ensemble from the London Philharmonic soloists.

Finally Stuart Bedford oversees a very convincing Stuttgart production on DVD, which brings to life the apparitions and strange goings-on in the house with a sense of immediate foreboding.

Spotify

There are a number of high quality versions available on the streaming service. Britten’s version for Decca can be found here, while Daniel Harding’s version on Virgin Classics can be found here,

Meanwhile Sir Colin Davis conducts a very well respected version here, with Helen Donath as the Governess, Robert Tear as Quint and Michael Ginn as Miles, Sir Colin conducting members of the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Steaurt Bedford, meanwhile, conducts another version here, with Felicity Lott as the Governess and Philip Langridge as Quint.

Also written in 1954: Walton – Troilus and Cressida

Next up: Canticle III: Still Falls The Rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn, Op.55

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Turn of the Screw, Op.54

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Owen Wingrave, Op.85 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Death in Venice, Op.88 | Good Morning Britten

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