With a ‘Turn of the Screw’

Benjamin Britten’s powerful chamber opera of innocence and possession: shimmering clarity, ambiguous and chilling.

Benjamin Britten’s operas are now a staple of the Viennese repertory. | Illustration: Katarina Klein

To Benjamin Britten fans, and of course to fans of Henry James, who is still as unknown to German-speakers as Britten was 30 years ago, the Theater an der Wien is tossing a ghostly musical nosegay Sept. 14. Britten’s chamber opera of James’ 1898 psycho-thriller The Turn of the Screw, composed in 1954, is their first major production of the season, with further performances on Sept. 17, 19, 24, and 27.

Conducted by Cornelius Meister, new leader of the ORF orchestra, the production will be directed by the meticulous star Robert Carsen, who assumes the added duties of stage designer for the first time in his career. Soprano Sally Matthews heads the cast as a Governess sent by a nobleman she has a secret crush on to care for his two young children in a provincial manor. Let us hope she brings to the challenging role the delicacy and fanaticism so memorable from her Blanche in Poulenc’s opera Dialogue of the Carmelites three years ago.

Here, the idyll she so longs for with little Miles and Flora is disturbed by her sightings of two ghosts: her predecessors in servitude, Miss Jessel and manservant Peter Quint (not to be confused with the author of this article), Jessel’s paramour.

James himself downplayed his novella as a “potboiler” and even an “amusette”, but critics such as Edmund Wilson refused to be disarmed, finding in it a masterly study of the Governess’ own psychopathology, quite possibly drawing on details of James’ invalid sister Alice. The novella is nothing if not Victorian, and details of the “corruption” these two children were subjected to by the ghosts are kept properly, and perhaps enticingly, veiled. But when the Governess badgers Miles to his very death, forcing him to “see” and confront the evil Peter Quint, over-zealous investigators of child-abuse come to mind.

James hinted that a general atmosphere of ambiguity was essential to his story’s effect. The biggest question is whether the Governess could merely be imagining the ghosts – a question that is virtually inevitable considering she is the first-person narrator. In the operatic version, this literary ambiguity is bolstered by the inherent emotional ambiguity of the music itself. Still, Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper had to decide whether to put the two ghosts onstage, and they did, including a scene where the children have a ghastly rendezvous with them deep in the night, thus making concrete what in James’ narrative the children never directly acknowledge.

After decades of nonplussed reception in the German-speaking opera world, Britten has been going great guns here for nearly two decades. This production is part of a Britten series at the Theater an der Wien that began with Death in Venice in 2009 and continued last year with The Rape of Lucretia, while the Staatsoper has performed Peter Grimes and Billy Budd to popular acclaim since 1993. Audiences may remember Luc Bondy’s The Turn of the Screw at the Wiener Festwochen a few years back, not to mention a production at the Kammeroper in the 1990s.

Turn is the third in a group of chamber operas by Britten that he wrote in part as a reaction to the restrictive cultural politics in England after the war. For example, the large-scale Peter Grimes received a divided reception from administration and singers, despite the fact that it was premièred to frenetic public acclaim at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.

The Turn of the Screw was commissioned by the Venice Biennale, and was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice in 1954 by Britten’s English Opera Group, a touring company that had already performed the neo-classically tinged Rape of Lucretia and the village sit-com Albert Herring.

The rubric “chamber opera” is largely of Britten’s own making. The ultimate consummation of Britten’s “chamber” aesthetic was the casting of Miles and Flora with actual children, one of the bolder leaps forward in the history of opera.

Because of his acumen in writing for the voice, but also through a kind of sixth sense for the psychology of childhood, he managed to write two challenging roles that, time after time, have triumphantly brought out the best in their interpreters. (David Hemmings, who played Miles in the original production and can be heard on Britten’s recording from the 1950s, went on to fame in an even spookier part 12 years later, the ethereally brutal photographer in Antonioni’s film Blowup.)

‘The Turn of the Screw’ opens Sept. 14 at Theater an der Wien. | Photo: Theater an der Wien

The title refers, unusually, not to content but explicitly to the story-telling technique: “…if the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?” It is possible that the technical prowess of James’ novella held a natural fascination for a composer with a corresponding technical dexterity.

Britten decided to intersperse the opera’s 16 scenes with musical interludes, variations composed in the 12-tone technique (using, however, mostly consonant intervals). As in his other operas, he selects tonal centres for opposing characters – A for the Governess, A-flat for Peter Quint, for instance – and then reinforces this with his instrumentation.

The instrumentation of Turn has an etched fineness peculiarly suited to James’ story, a kind of muted clarity that is unmistakable in practically every bar – one need only think of the tom-toms accompanying the Governess’ coach ride to the manor.

Leonard Bernstein once said of Britten that, despite a certain “decorative” aspect in his music, “there are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing”. This was meant not pejoratively but in admiration, as a hint of Britten’s very private artistic and personal daemons.

However, a listener may be hard put to discover such moments. Britten afforded spare but immaculate forms and instrumentation to his setting of  Turn, a story where demons themselves mourn and, in a phrase borrowed by the librettist Piper from the poet William Butler Yeats, “the cere-
mony of innocence is drowned”.

But slipped into the glove of his craft is a passion that explodes at the opera’s conclusion, when the Governess, over Miles’ lifeless body, repeats the schoolboy’s rhyme he sang earlier, a plaintive text based on the multiple meanings of the Latin word “malo”. That her voice only soars so late in the day is part of Britten’s own reticent, nostalgic aesthetic. It seems to be a counterweight to Henry James’ more high-strung and ornate literary style.

Adapters never quite mesh with their adaptees, which is probably why Turn has been quietly fascinating audiences for half a century. Although details of Carsen’s production are still under wraps as we go to press, there is little doubt that Britten/James will once more cast their cultivated spell.

The upcoming production will have German surtitles exclusively. An English libretto can be downloaded for free at www.operamanager.com/cgi-bin/process.cgi by clicking “libretto”. 

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