The Turn of the Screw


Wednesday 14 September 2011
7.30 pm

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Benjamin Britten wrote a brilliant musical adaptation of Henry James’ disturbing novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) for the English National Opera Group. The focus of the work is those themes that were important in Britten's life: the difficulty of recognising good and evil and judging them, the loss of innocence and its uncontrollable infiltration by what is commonly known as evil. Britten uses a chamber ensemble of twelve musicians to achieve the highest possible degree of precise and gripping harmonic tension. Claustrophobia, seduction and ambivalence shimmer in the music.

A young, inexperienced woman takes on a position as governess to two orphans. She is forced to promise the children's guardian never to bother him with problems. Apprehensive about what awaits her, the governess travels to the remote country estate. Initially, she finds her two young charges, Miles and Flora, delightful. But as time goes by the eerie atmosphere in the house casts a deeper and deeper spell over her. Ghosts appear to her of her deceased predecessor Miss Jessel and the manservant Quint, who is also dead. There seems to be a relationship between the ghosts and the children that bodes no good. The governess decides to save the children from the corrupting influence of the dead. She becomes completely caught up in this task until it finally results in a confrontation: when Quint approaches Miles, the governess tries to restrain the boy, but he dies in her arms.

What really happens remains unclear, both in James’ novella and in the opera. Is the governess hallucinating or do the ghosts really exist? In sixteen scenes, called "variations", Britten expounds on a basic theme that is introduced at the beginning, before bringing it to an agonising head in the final collapse. The perfect world at the estate turns out to be a place of dark seduction. Quint, the messenger from hell, tempts with the silvery music of the spheres of the celesta, while the children, with their songs that are neither musically nor lyrically innocent, prove that they have long since fallen under the thrall of darkness. The only innocent at the beginning of the story is the governess who is then confronted by her own darkness and that of the world on the idyllic country estate.