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Britten’s Centennial Honored by NEC


NEC"S Promotional Image
NEC”S Promotional Image

An opera with a governess, ghosts and Gothic strangeness may be just the thing for audiences besotted with English TV melodramas.  On February 2nd through the 5th, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, New England Conservatory’s Opera Department will present Benjamin Britten’s, The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera with six singers and thirteen instrumentalists set to Henry James’s sinister psychological novella. NEC has a reliable record for presenting well -staged, played and sung student performances. Tickets may be ordered here.

Commissioned by the Venice Biennale in 1954, the opera was provisionally entitled “The Tower and the Lake.” Its librettist, Britten’s friend, Myfanwy Piper, first suggested James’s ghost story as the basis for an opera. Britten described how the piece moves in a circular direction, a cycle of keys through which the opera progresses, “like a screw being gradually tightened.” It is built on a theme employing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The composer oddly remarked, “The simpler I write my music, the more difficult it becomes to perform!”

The opera will be conducted by Douglas Kinney Frost, director of Music for Syracuse Opera, and directed by Joshua Major, Chair of Opera Studies at NEC. The Intelligencer spoke with Major about this production:

“I like the terse and precise storytelling” Mr. Major explained. “They never talk about what’s really going on. The whole story is filled with ambiguity, and I try to keep the ambiguous element present for the audience.

“There is so much subtext going on which gives the drama focus and purpose, but you, as an audience, cannot be sure what it is. It’s almost as if they are talking in code. I have tried to be specific, but without being overly literal or obvious. Musically it’s an extremely difficult piece. But the vocabulary is perfect to tell this particular story.

“We try to pick repertoire that will enhance the experience for the singers at the school, to give them a substantive experience. We have remarkable musicians both on the stage and in the orchestra pit and they are bringing incredible energy and excitement to the production. Cameron Anderson has created a very beautiful and suggestive set and Katherine Stebbins and Chris Ostrum round out the terrific production team.

“It’s a very terse and compact story about loss of innocence, which alludes to a poem by Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’ from which Britten uses the line ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’ A young woman comes to a house in the country as a governess, and is given far too much responsibility without having the experience to help her deal with it. The world she’s moved into looks innocent and perfect at first, but soon reveals itself to be something much more than she bargained for. But why was (the boy) Miles dismissed (from school)? Your own feat of imagination is a key. The ambiguity is there more ‘when it’s on its feet’.”

“Turn of the Screw” in rehearsal in NEC’s Opera studio. (L-R); Douglas Kinney Frost, conductor; Joshua Major, director; Emily Jensen (The Governess); Gillian Citter (Mrs. Grose); and (in background) Jessica Harika (Mrs. Grose) and Asha Carroll (The Governess) (Andrew Hurlbut photo)
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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