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The Turn of the Screw, Op 54
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'Britten: The Turn of the Screw' (LSO0749)
Britten: The Turn of the Screw
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Act 1 No 01: Prologue
Act 1 No 02: Theme
Act 1 No 03: Scene 1: The journey (Governess)
Act 1 No 04: Variation 1
Act 1 No 05: Scene 2: The welcome (Miles/Flora/Mrs Grose/Governess)
Act 1 No 06: Variation 2
Act 1 No 07: Scene 3: The letter (Mrs Grose/Governess/Flora/Miles)
Act 1 No 08: Variation 3
Act 1 No 09: Scene 4: The tower (Governess)
Act 1 No 10: Variation 4
Act 1 No 11: Scene 5: The window (Miles/Flora/Governess/Mrs Grose)
Act 1 No 12: Variation 5
Act 1 No 13: Scene 6: The lesson (Miles/Governess/Flora)
Act 1 No 14: Variation 6
Act 1 No 15: Scene 7: The lake (Flora/Governess/Miles)
Act 1 No 16: Variation 7
Act 1 No 17: Scene 8: At night (Quint/Miles/Miss Jessel/Flora/Governess/Mrs Grose)
Act 2 No 01: Variation 8
Act 2 No 02: Scene 1: Colloquy and soliloquy (Miss Jessel/Quint/Governess)
Act 2 No 03: Variation 9
Act 2 No 04: Scene 2: The bells (Miles/Flora/Mrs Grose/Governess)
Act 2 No 05: Variation 10
Act 2 No 06: Scene 3: Miss Jessel (Governess/Miss Jessel)
Act 2 No 07: Variation 11
Act 2 No 08: Scene 4: The bedroom (Miles/Governess/Quint)
Act 2 No 09: Variation 12 (Quint)
Act 2 No 10: Scene 5: Quint (Quint)
Act 2 No 11: Variation 13
Act 2 No 12: Scene 6: The piano (Governess/Mrs Grose/Flora)
Act 2 No 13: Variation 14
Act 2 No 14: Scene 7: Flora (Mrs Grose/Governess/Miss Jessel/Flora)
Act 2 No 15: Variation 15
Act 2 No 16: Scene 8: Miles (Governess/Mrs Grose/Miles/Quint)

The Turn of the Screw, Op 54
Henry James’ 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw is as perplexing as it is powerful. Are the experiences of the children the result of the evil actions of two former estate staff or are they the hysterical fantasies of an addled governess?

It was no doubt this curious subtlety that first attracted Britten to the text when he heard a radio play on the BBC in 1932. Describing it as a ‘wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary’ story, the composer was clearly intrigued by what he had heard. Working with writer Myfanwy Piper on an operatic adaptation 22 years later, Britten was able to blur James’ boundaries between the real and the imagined yet further through musical means. So when the Governess asks ‘what have we done between us?’ at the end of the opera, the audience is powerless to answer.

Britten first came to know Myfanwy Piper through her husband the artist John Piper, whom she married in 1935. The Pipers’ home was a regular haunt for Britten and his friends during the 1930s. The composer regularly consulted Myfanwy on literary matters, including the librettos for The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947). Following the relative failure of Gloriana (1953), Britten was keen to return to smaller scale works. Piper and Britten’s first project (begun as Gloriana was coming to the stage) soon evolved into another vehicle for Britten’s English Opera Group. Piper, no doubt knowing of Britten’s often difficult temperament, struck an immediate easy balance that neither Eric Crozier nor Montagu Slater had been able to manage. Piper worked tirelessly adapting the first person ghost story into a working libretto in which persons real, imagined or ghostly have equally rewarding tales. Piper achieved this with remarkable concision, adjusting the text following letters and phone calls, thus allowing Britten free rein.

The implicit dichotomy between actual and illusory states worked well for Britten. He conjures the world of Bly with great dynamism and colour. The Governess’ ride to the house is underpinned with a jolting rhythm, echoing the carriage wheels as they bump along the road. Miles’ Mozartian piano lesson and his endless vocabulary lists in his Latin lesson are eloquent and precise. The score is vivid and kinetic, never relenting, drawing us on, even in seemingly most mundane moments. But in the repetition of these motifs, both rhythmic and melodic (not least the manic nursery rhymes), Britten reveals something unsettling about the children.

The Latin nouns that Miles recites—‘amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, follis …’—have been found to have alternative meanings as slang for the sexual organs. This may seem mere schoolboy humour, but it indicates that all is not quite what it seems. And as in Peter Grimes (taking its lead in turn from Berg’s Wozzeck), Britten uses the orchestral interlude to comment on the drama as it unfolds. In these wordless moments the composer provides a bridge between reality and imagination. It is therefore not just the Governess who is unable to distinguish between these two worlds; by enveloping the audience within the interludes, we are aligned with her confusion.

That puzzlement is pushed even further with the arrival of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Quint’s first appearance is perfectly timed. The third variation—a lush pastoral interlude indicating a warm summer’s evening (with broad held chords in the strings and ululating bird-like woodwind)—shows the Governess walking easily through the grounds. But the eerie glitter of the harp, which sounds when the children are mentioned, immediately undercuts the serenity of the picture. Unhearing, the Governess evokes her employer and how proud he would be of her care for the children. It is at that moment that Quint (not yet named) can be seen on a nearby tower (a scheme which is repeated later at the Lake with Miss Jessel). The sound world shifts instantly, dominated by the celesta’s metallic shimmer and a more chromatic harmonic palate. The woodwind that had previously echoed birdsong now snags against the Governess’ questions. Without singing a word, Quint has disturbed her state of mind and that of the work as a whole.

Quint and Miss Jessel’s ‘voice’ in the opera is a beguiling but treacherous cocktail of magic and sexual temptation. The celesta returns to accompany Quint in the children’s bedroom. Recalling the gentle tinkle of a music box, this exquisite instrument first appeared at the end of the 19th century. Its piquant chimes cut through orchestral textures and, in the music of Richard Strauss and his contemporaries (Schreker, Zemlinsky or Korngold), it underpins particularly erotic moments, such as Salome kissing the severed head of John the Baptist in Strauss’ 1903 opera. Britten uses the instrument in a number of his scores, relying on it to characterise Quint in The Turn of the Screw and later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Britten the instrument was sometimes used to recall the sound of the Balinese Gamelan, which the Canadian composer Colin McPhee had introduced to him during his time in America during the War. This new timbre represented a kind of ‘danger’, appearing in Britten’s work as early as Paul Bunyan (1941). Quint and his exotic sounds may enchant, but they also draw us into an unsafe world. To Miles, the ubiquitous bad schoolboy, Quint represents an escape from conformity and the Governess’ increasingly stifling hold. Eventually, Miles mirrors Quint’s music and the ever-revolving sound of ‘Malo’ (Bad) echoes through the score. Miles says ‘You see, I am bad’, but we can also hear it.

This ensnaring is all planned meticulously in the score. Britten structures the opera around a theme and variation form. We hear the two-part theme immediately after the Prologue. It sounds again later as the ghosts quote from Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’, the repetitive mantra, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. The recurrence of this theme allows us to latch on to the ghosts and identify their presence—musical and dramatic—in the opera. It is their musical aura, more than anything else, that indicates their existence. The history and sounds of Bly—the ‘curious story’ to which the Prologue refers—have been changed irrevocably by them. And as each interlude develops that initial theme, we realise that the Ghosts’ destruction of the children is a musical and dramatic inevitability.

The Governess may appear as bewildered as we are by this process, but in her final search for truth—‘What have we done between us?’—she indicates her complicity (and perhaps ours too). By allowing ourselves to be drawn into the drama, do we become voyeurs of its tragedy? The opera’s great achievement is that we are never entirely certain about the actuality of this world. Having initially set up two opposing states—that of Bly and the ghosts—Britten and Piper combine one and the other. And, as the Governess repeats the ‘Malo’ theme in the final bars, we wonder whether we can even trust her as a reliable narrator.

Prologue: A narrator tells a curious story about a governess who looks after two children. She has agreed to do everything for them, providing she never contacts their guardian.

Act I: The Governess travels to Bly, somewhat nervous about her imminent task. Miles and Flora are excited about her arrival and dance around the housekeeper Mrs Grose. When the Governess arrives, the children lead her off on a trip around the park. Soon, a letter arrives reporting that Miles has been expelled from school; Mrs Grose is shocked by the news. Hearing the children singing nursery rhymes, the Governess decides to ignore the letter.

In the grounds, one summer evening, the Governess sees a strange man, who appears by the house again the following day. When she describes to Mrs Grose whom she has seen, the housekeeper realises that Peter Quint, the master’s distrustful old valet, has returned. He used to spend a lot of time with Miles and ‘had his will’ with Miss Jessel, the former governess. Quint died, however, having fallen on an icy road. Mrs Grose and the Governess vow to protect the children.

Miles recites his Latin, but when the Governess asks what else he has learned, the boy begins to sing a strange song. No less peculiar is the lullaby Flora sings to her doll by the lake. Seeing Miss Jessel on the other side of the water, the Governess realises that the children are becoming lost to her. At night, Quint and Miss Jessel lure Miles and Flora into the garden.

Act II: Quint and Miss Jessel reproach each other before deciding to find companions whose innocence they can destroy. The Governess is unsure how to react to unfolding events. In the churchyard Flora and Miles sing a mock hymn of praise. They enchant Mrs Grose, but the Governess is certain the children are communicating with ‘the others’. Having decided not to contact the children’s guardian, the sight of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom changes the Governess’ mind. She tells Miles that she has written a letter, which Quint encourages Miles to steal.

In the schoolroom Miles impresses the Governess and Mrs Grose with his piano playing. Flora slips out. Realising where she has gone, the women chase after her. Flora is by the lake again. The Governess spots Miss Jessel in the distance, but neither Mrs Grose nor, more surprisingly, Flora claims to be able to see her. Shocked by the Governess’ delusory state, Mrs Grose removes Flora from the house, leaving Miles and the Governess alone. Unable or unwilling to answer her questions, Miles becomes increasingly agitated. Finally he rejects Quint’s calls and falls lifelessly in the Governess’ arms.

from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2013

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