Everything you need to know about Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in one place, right here!
What is the story?
The Turn of the Screw is based on Henry James’ short horror story of the same name. The plot centres on a young governess who is sent to Bly, a large country estate, to care for two children. She has strict instructions from their guardian never to write to him, never to ask about the history of the house, and never to abandon the children.
It isn’t long before the Governess starts to see apparitions around the grounds. When she describes the sightings, they are identified by the housekeeper as the previous governess Miss Jessel and former valet Peter Quint, who both died not long ago. As the children’s behaviour grows increasingly strange, the Governess becomes convinced that these ghosts have returned to claim Miles and Flora – and vows to protect them. But are the phantoms real, or is it all in the Governess’ fevered imagination?
Who are the characters?
The Governess (soprano)
Miles — 10-year-old boy under her care (treble)
Flora — his sister, also under the Governess’ care (soprano)
Mrs Grose — the housekeeper (mezzo-soprano)
Miss Jessel — former governess, now deceased (soprano)
Peter Quint — former valet, now deceased (tenor)
The opera also has a ‘Prologue’ – an introduction from a narrator, usually sung by the same singer as Peter Quint.
What is the music like?
The Turn of the Screw is a chamber opera, meaning that its orchestra has just 13 players, but these few players are used effectively to create an incredibly atmospheric sound world.
The piece is tightly structured – its two acts are divided into exactly eight scenes, and every scene is preceded by an orchestral interlude, which sets the mood. Most importantly, each connecting interlude is built around the ‘screw’ theme, which is the 12-note-row (every note of the scale). This idea is deliberately (and eerily!) childlike in its simplicity. The sequence ascends during Act I and descends in Act II to represent the ‘screw’ being tightened and released, and is heard throughout the whole opera in multiple variations.
Britten also uses nursery rhymes – now a familiar horror device – for Miles and Flora, such as ‘Lavender’s Blue’ and ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’. However, a real musical highlight is Miles’ ‘Malo’, where the words of a Latin mnemonic are sung in a trance-like state, making for one of the most unnerving arias in all of opera! Hear some highlights with our Spotify playlist »
What is this production like?
Alessandro Talevi’s production of The Turn of the Screw is updated to the 1920s in look and feel. The set (by Madeleine Boyd) is an expressionistic tableau where Bly’s interior and exterior – including the tower – are all piled into one. This represents that we may be seeing everything not as it really is, but through the eyes of the Governess. The stage is dominated by a huge, skewed window behind which shadowy figures appear, and a four-poster bed is ever-present in the centre, which again leaves us to question whether the whole experience may actually be in the Governess’ dreams.
There is ghostly imagery a-plenty – a rocking horse rocks unaided, body doubles for certain characters are used to spine-chilling effect, and it’s all enhanced by the lighting (by Matthew Haskins), which creates grotesque shadows on the back wall, stunning depictions of dawn and dusk, and much more.
Who was the composer?
The Turn of the Screw was written by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976). Britten was a central figure of 20th Century British classical music. He produced everything from vast choral works to sonatas and intimate settings of folk songs, but devoted the major part of his output to opera, composing 16 in total.
His music typically mixes tonality and dissonance, and recurring themes throughout his operas are 1) an outsider versus a hostile society or mob, and 2) the corruption of innocence.
A little history
Britten first came across James’ Turn of the Screw in 1932 (aged 18) when he heard it on the radio, writing in his diary that he thought it “a wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie & scarey play.” However, work on an operatic adaptation did not begin until more than 20 years later, when librettist Myfanwy Piper suggested it as a subject.
The Venice Biennale had commissioned a new Britten opera to premiere in 1953, but this had been postponed (the composer had needed surgery in his right shoulder), so the pressure was on to get The Turn of the Screw ready for September 1954. In the end, Britten wrote the opera in just four months and his assistant made a vocal score of each scene as it was completed so that the singers could begin learning the music!
The day of the premiere was also fraught – the Italian stage crew threatened to go on strike and then the performance had to be delayed because it was being transmitted live on the radio and an earlier broadcast had run over! But the ghostly opera was not cursed after all – it was well received and today is the second-most performed opera in English worldwide.
Did you know?
— The Turn of the Screw was the first complete recording of a Britten opera (recorded in 1954). In 1959, it also became the first ever full-length opera to be broadcast on British independent television.
— There has been much debate over the dash in Miles’ final line, his response to the Governess’ insistence that he say the name of his tormentor (or maybe his liberator): The Governess: “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?” Miles: “Peter Quint – you devil!” Does Miles refer to Quint or to the Governess (who, if insane, could be the real villain of the piece)? It’s all left very ambiguous…
— In order to adapt Henry James’ short story into an opera for the stage, key changes had to be made. The ghosts, which in the novella are silent (and possibly imaginary) had, by theatrical necessity, to be physically present, so needed lines writing for them. The significant line ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’ sung by Quint and Miss Jessel is borrowed from The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats. Read more about the differences between James’ novella and Britten’s opera »