About The Turn of the Screw ...
The idea for an opera on Henry James's ghost story The Turn of the Screw was brought to Benjamin Britten by Myfanwy Piper, a long-time friend and wife one of Britten's favored production designers. Myfanwy Piper was later the librettist for Britten's later operas Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice.
Henry James, who is widely thought of as one of the greatest American novelists and among the greatest writers in English, had called his 1898 work "a shameless potboiler." But Britten had a much higher opinion, calling it "glorious and eerie," and "an incredible masterpiece."
Britten's The Turn of the Screw was commissioned by the 1954 Venice Biennale, one of the most important arts festivals of the time. Britten must have been seized by his subject, because he wrote the piece beginning in February 1954, and it premiered in September 1954 at La Fenice, the opera house of Venice. It premiered immediately afterward at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, where Britten's Peter Grimes premiered in 1945.
That original cast included some of the most important British singers of those years: Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Cross, and Peter Pears, Britten's life-partner and his constant artistic collaborator. In the succeeding years, it has been repeatedly produced by opera companies large and small throughout Europe and the United States.
The Turn of the Screw is not large in scale: seven singing parts, no chorus, and a running time of about two hours, with one intermission. In addition, the music is founded on one theme, introduced in the Prologue, which Britten manipulates through 17 variations that grow in intensity as the plot develops through the 17 scenes.
MLS recommends this excellent introduction to the opera, which combines a thorough plot summary with musical excerpts that will familiarize you with the themes and musical numbers.
Here are two excerpts to pique your interest: in the first, you will hear the beginning of the opera, which features the Prologue's description of the story's background. In the second, the Governess is tormented by Miss Jessel, the deceased governess.
Theme and Synopsis
An orphaned brother and sister, Miles and Flora, live at Bly, a country house in England; Miles and Flora are ten and eight. They live under the guardianship of their uncle, who never appears, though his attractiveness figures in the imagination of their new Governess, who is known only by that name. Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper, and as the only other adult at Bly, becomes the Governess's confidant. These are the living characters.
There are also Miss Jessel, the previous governess at Bly, deceased; and Peter Quint, valet at Bly, also deceased. There is a character named Prologue, who sets the scene. This part may be sung by a separate singer, but as in this MLS production, is often sung by the tenor who sings Peter Quint.
The theme of The Turn of the Screw appealed strongly to Britten throughout his career: corruption and innocence, or perhaps, corruption of innocence. This theme is highlighted by its association in the libretto with a line from W.B. Yeat's poem The Second Coming: "the ceremony of innocence is drowned." This line is sung three times at the beginning of Act II by the ghostly characters, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Its effect is very like a conjuring.
The story could be summed up this simply: Miles and Flora have come under the evil influences of the ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. As the new person at Bly, the Governess discovers the situation and tries to counteract it, but with disastrous consequences. But there is a great deal more to be encountered in both the story and the opera than that bald summary.
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