[Pt. II Proj.2] Research point ~ Extended tonality –Britten’s ‘The turn of the Screw’ chamber opera

Research point

Choose an opera by Britten to research in more depth, using the internet or the library. Summarise the main events of the plot and write a brief programme note of 250–300 words (along the lines suggested in Project One) describing the work’s first performance and the circumstances of its composition.

Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera ‘The turn of the Screw’ was originally commissioned by the Venice Biennale and premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in1935. According to David Hemmings who performed the part of Miles it received an ecstatic reception. “It started slowly, and soon there was this rush of enormous enthusiasm from the audience – which absolutely took you by the bowels and broke your heart. We didn’t quite know what had happened. There was something like 43 curtain calls.”

The opera’s libretto, by Myfanwy Piper takes it’s theme from ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James. First published in 1898 as a serial horror novella in Collier’s Weekly magazine. It is a ghost story which has given rise to numerous adaptations and films the world over. It’s inherent ambiguity has caused numerous interpretations. 

A governess is tasked with the care of two orphaned children at the country estate Bly House. The Governess starts seeing the ghosts of the previous valet, Peter Quint, and governess Miss Jessel. She perceives their harmful intentions towards the children. Whether this is a mere projection of her repressed sexual fantasies or whether this is a tale of sexual abuse and it’s subsequent denial is an issue for debate but it is certain that the central theme is the loss of innocence.

Britten masterfully expresses this ambiguity by using the dissonant versus the tonal and the 16 scenes ( a prologue and two acts) are woven together by ‘Schoenberg-esque’ 12 tone row variations. Equally eerie is the use of several nursery rhymes like ’Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’. The ghost vocals sit a semitone apart from the vocals sung by the living adding to the tension only to be resolved at the end upon the death of the young boy Miles.