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The Turn of the Screw: Five differences — novella vs. opera

How do you go about adapting a novella into an opera for the stage, when the author has left it unclear whether some of the characters actually exist?!

Our Publications Intern Ruby Fatimilehin explores five differences between Henry James’ story and Benjamin Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw that you may not have known…

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1) The role of the narrator

James’s text begins with a layered narrative system consisting of three different narrators. A first nameless narrator begins the tale, relating a strange Christmas gathering where the attendees exchange ghost stories. The second narrator, Douglas, is introduced as an attendee of the Christmas party who wishes to tell a ghost story. He reads the story of Miles, Flora and the governess from an old manuscript. The governess herself is introduced as a third, main narrator who carries the narrative until the novella’s tragic end.

Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, however, removed the first two narrators from the novella and replaced them with a single new narrator. Under the impersonal designation of ‘Prologue’, Britten’s narrator conveys the circumstances that led to the governess’s presence at the Bly country house effectively replacing the information given by Douglas in James’s text. From then on, the audience consumes the tale on stage in ‘real time’.

Benjamin Hulett as the Prologue, 2010 © Bill Cooper

2) Are the apparitions real?

In James’ novella, the reader’s whole experience of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint is channelled through the Governess’ representation of the apparitions in her own narration. In Britten’s opera, the audience can view the visitants directly, due to the necessary physical presence of the performers on stage. This has the potential reduce the ambiguity in James’s text as to whether the apparitions are real or imagined by the Governess (though it all depends on each opera director’s interpretation).

However, through the Governess’s relation of her experiences to the housekeeper Mrs Grose, the audience still gains insight into her own interpretation of the apparitions’ motives. Mrs Grose retains her function as potential corroborator to the Governess’ version of events, and her inability to see the visitants in both versions of The Turn of the Screw create doubt as to the Governess’ sanity, so the uncertainty remains.

Elizabeth Atherton and Yvonne Howard as Mrs Grose, 2010 © Bill Cooper

3) The voices of the visitants

Britten’s decision to create singing roles for the visitants meant Piper had to write many speeches which are non-existent in the novella, where the visitants are voiceless spectres whose intentions are left to be inferred by the reader. In Britten’s opera, however, the apparitions openly voice their intentions and also address the children, who in turn reply to them.

One example of this is Act II Scene I, which does not appear in the novella. Here, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel reappear, quarrelling about who harmed whom first when they were alive and accusing one another of not acting quickly enough to possess the children. This could, again, deplete much of ambiguity of the apparitions’ purpose found in the novella.

Giselle Allen as Miss Jessel and Benjamin Hulett as Peter Quint, 2010 © Bill Cooper

4) Nursery rhymes and Latin lines

Much of the opera’s libretto has no basis in Henry James’ text, and are additions by Britten and Piper:

—  The children’s music draws inspiration from nursery rhymes such as ‘Lavender’s Blue’ and ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’.
—  The lyrics of Miles’ trance-like aria ‘Malo’ are a mnemonic for beginner Latin students, playing on the different meanings of the Latin root: “Malo: I would rather be | Malo: in an apple-tree | Malo: than a naughty boy | Malo: In adversity”. This portrays Miles as helpless in the face of the apparitions.
—  The line “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”, sung repeatedly by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in Act II Scene I, is taken from W. B. Yeats poem The Second Coming. The violent and prophetic language emphasises the suffering Miles and Flora have faced and suggests that the worst is yet to come.

James Micklethwaite as Miles, 2010 © Bill Cooper

5) The director’s task

For many years, critics have disputed whether the apparitions in the novella are real or not. Back in 1907, Oliver Elton questioned whether “the two ghosts who can choose to which persons they will appear, are facts, or delusions of the young governess who tells the story”. In a 2012 commentary in the New Yorker, Brad Leithauser wrote that the novella “is rigorously committed to lack of commitment”.

This ambiguity at the heart of The Turn of the Screw can be found in many of Britten’s operas, making the novella particularly suitable for his operatic treatment. Britten and Piper were careful not to interpret the story and impose meaning, but rather to shift the ambiguity of the novella to another medium and leave it to subsequent generations to explore and interpret as they see fit. In our acclaimed production by Alessandro Talevi, the idea that the visitations might be a product of the Governess’ fertile imagination is always retained, as:

—  She is on stage for the entire opera, to represent that what we could be seeing is what she is seeing
—  Everything visual in the set – from the tower to the vast, skewed window – is expressionistic and distorted, to signify that perhaps we are not seeing reality, but Bly through the Governess’ impressions

The production, however, never picks a side: “Talevi’s interpretation poses many questions but offers no answers. Subtle, suggestive and rigorously rehearsed, it keeps us guessing and imagining. I found it absolutely enthralling.” (The Telegraph, 2010)


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