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Lost Innocence: Unfolding Horror in Turn of the Screw


“I seek a friend —Obedient to follow where I lead, Slick as a juggler’s mate to catch my thought… and in that hour ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’…” This ominous text is from the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s opera, Turn of the Screw, to be presented by Boston Lyric Opera as an Opera Annex production at the Park Plaza Castle on February 3, 5, and 6.

Loss of innocence was a theme of much of what Britten composed. Biographers have noted that his experience in his early teens, at the Gresham’s boarding school in England, at a formative time of his life, was partly the cause; Peter Pears later referred to this period for Britten as “two uneasy years.”

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera, “was, in some sort of way, a summing up,” Pears has said, noting that its lead character questions what he had spent his life looking for: “Knowledge? A lost innocence? And must the pursuit of beauty, of love, lead only to chaos? All questions Ben constantly asked himself.”

The impression among Boston opera concert-goers in recent years was that Boston Lyric Opera had lost its edge; but in the past two years, under the skillful new management, BLO is once again back on track, offering fine, out-of-the-ordinary productions. BLO conceived of Opera Annex as an opportunity to experience opera outside the traditional theatre environment by creating a production that reflects the unique characteristics of its particular performance space. Under a partnership between BLO and Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers, Turn of the Screw will be the first opera ever performed in the historic National Landmark Castle since it was built in 1891 as an armory for  the First Corps of Cadets. Stagehands are now at work at the Castle, creating a “pit” and stadium with 580 seats, all with unobstructed views and including ample wheelchair seating.

<p>BMInt Staff Photo</p>
The First Corps Cadets' Drill Room (BMInt Staff Photo)

Turn of the Screw is adapted from the Henry James story, originally published in 1898. Britten’s opera on the story is noted for its particularly tight organization and “exceptional economy of musical means.” The title, Britten felt, was superbly apt and unalterable. The tension is maintained and intensified throughout by turns of the musical screw, i.e. by the use of variation form, noted British music critic Michael Kennedy. “The theme, ‘the screw,’ is 12-note, but it is not a Schoenbergian note row and is not treated as such. The opera’s tonal conflict ‘turns’ between A minor and A-flat major.”

Britten himself noted, “It was certainly a difficult work to bring off technically and spiritually … the subject being, as it were, nearest to me of any I have of yet chosen (although what that indicates  of my own character I shouldn’t like to say).”

It is the tale of two orphaned children and their new governess in a rural country house in Victorian England, and the dead servant and schoolteacher who come back to haunt them. Gradually, the governess becomes aware of the repressed evil as relationships deteriorate around her. The story teems with the restrained emotions amidst Victorian sensibilities that defined so much of the James oeuvre, and its atmospheric and ambiguous plot appealed to Britten.

The librettist, Myfanwy Piper, lived some distance from Britten, a fact which worried him (needlessly, as it turned out). Corresponding by  letter and telephone, librettist and composer decided to make the opera in two acts, each broken into eight uninterrupted scenes. Britten himself added the scene at the start of Act II, of the two ghosts singing bitterly of their past, according to a biography by Christopher Headington (to which I am indebted for much of this article). This was Britten’s one departure from the James story’s ambivalence, in which the reader is left to guess if the governess imagined them or not.  The added scene does, of course, heighten the “lost innocence” theme so prevalent in Britten’s work and provided a good opportunity for a role for his life-long companion, tenor Peter Pears.

A provocative comparison between Britten’s Turn and his Death in Venice was also drawn by Patricia Howard in Cambridge Opera Handbook: Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw (Cambridge Univerity Press, 1985). She notes that “Quint represents for Miles the opening of magic casements, a world of enchantment and glamour, of preternatural, supernatural, unattainable beauty. Tadzio represents the same world for Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and it is fascinating to watch a composer repeating himself under stress of similar emotions …The Turn of the Screw is just as surely unconscious, more subtle.”

The premiere was at Teatro La Fenice in Venice, on September 14, 1954, Britten conducting. The impressive cast was headed by Britten favorite Jennifer Vyvyan. On opening night, a bouquet of roses was placed in each box, redolent of a smell appropriate to the setting for the opera. The following year, the English Opera Group toured the opera in Germany and Italy, (and again in 1964, to Russia).

The cast for the BLO production includes Emily Pulley as the governess, Rebecca Nash as Ms. Jessel in her American opera debut, and launches the 40th year in opera for the renowned mezzo-soprano, Joyce Castle, who will sing the role of Mrs. Grose. The girl is Kathryn Skemp. The boy will be sung by Miles Ryan Williams, a student at Walnut Hill School and a chorister at Trinity Church, Boston, alternating with Aidan Gent, a member of PALS Children’s Chorus. Vale Rideout is Quint and narrator for the Prologue. The conductor is Andrew Bisantz, former resident conductor of Florida Grand Opera and assistant conductor at Glimmerglass Opera from 2001 to 2004. Director is Sam Helfrich, Andrew Lieberman, set designer, who have also worked together at Glimmerglass.

Helfrich noted, “I could spin the opera with a very positive, benevolent view of the main character, the Governess, as someone deeply committed to doing good and to protecting innocent children, or I could spin the opera in a completely different way, portraying her as unstable, paranoid, sadistic, and ultimately responsible for horrible violence toward young children. Both of these views are completely supported both by the opera and by the Henry James short story on which it’s based. Without giving too much away, I would say that my “take” on the piece is to exploit these ambiguities, to cast doubt in the mind of the audience, and to have people leave the show slightly uncertain, as James did.”

James’s story has been translated by Britten, with his compassion for the victim and outcast, to a profound opera with the composer’s superb musicality.

See related review here.

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  1. I know Ryan, he’s my best friend. I didn’t know about this!

    Comment by Simon — May 13, 2010 at 7:42 pm

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