Listening Log [Pt. II Proj.2] -Benjamin Britten’s ‘The turn of the Screw’ chamber opera

Benjamin Britten’s ‘The turn of the Screw’ chamber opera (1954)

Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera ‘The turn of the Screw’ was originally commissioned by the Venice Biennale and premiered at the Teatro La Fenice in 1954. 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 its theme from ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was 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 and its inherent ambiguity has caused numerous interpretations.

It tells the tale of a governess tasked with the care of two orphaned children at the country estate Bly House. Shortly after the children’s arrival the Governess starts seeing the ghosts of the previous valet, Peter Quint, and previous governess Miss Jessel. She begins to perceive these ghost’s harmful intentions towards the children in her care. Whether this is a mere projection of her repressed sexual fantasies or whether this is a tale of sexual abuse and its subsequent denial has been the issue of vigorous debate, but it is certain that the central theme of the piece is the ‘loss of innocence’.

In his two-part chamber opera Britten masterfully expresses the ambiguity and mental anguish portrayed in the novella by using the dissonant versus the tonal as the 16 scenes are woven together by ‘Schoenberg-esque’ 12 tone row variations. The strange jarring rhythms of dotted 8th notes played at 12/8- and 6/8-time signatures create a build-up of stress. Every scene is introduced by a twelve-note theme ‘the Screw’ built on tetra chords and outlining the circle of fifths. The effect of the contrast between tonality and atonality is downright spookiness. Equally eerie is the use of several nursery rhymes like ’Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son’. The ghost’s vocal sits a semitone apart from the vocals sung by the living, creating chromatic and dramatic tension only to be resolved at the end upon the death of the young boy Miles. The use of a smaller size orchestra- a chamber orchestra, with the inclusion of a celeste and a harp adds to the claustrophobic ‘other worldliness’ and sinister ‘ghost story’ feel of the work. 

I can absolutely see why this opera is considered one of the greatest British operas. It is very gripping and even frightening in a very gothic way. It really is a masterpiece of storytelling and drama and it also feels quite current. The psychosexual topics and issues of abnormal sexuality and sexual abuse raised, although presented in the form of a somewhat old-fashioned horror story are still very relevant. However, it is difficult not to ask oneself how much of Britten’s own sexuality and potential repressed sexual urges led him to pick this particular tale. I wonder if there was any part of him that might have related to the characters in the story, perhaps to even more than just the one character? Did he portray these fears and anxieties so vividly because he could relate to them? I think it is of some significance and although I see the need for privacy, I think society as a whole would benefit if this wasn’t such a taboo subject whenever celebrities are involved. Although I abhor salacious gossip and don’t approve of any type of witch-hunt, I think there is a place for meaningful supportive dialogue and a need for openness about these issues.