Opera Scotland

Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw

Music
Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text
Myfanwy Piper

Source
Story (1898) by Henry James (1843-1916).

Premieres
First performance: Venice (Teatro La Fenice), 14 September 1954.
First UK performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 6 October 1954.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 3 September 1962.
Scottish Opera première: Aberdeen (His Majesty’s Theatre), 26 March 1970.

Background
The Turn of the Screw was an immediate success and has become accepted as a masterpiece and one of Britten’s greatest works. As the years pass and different interpretations are given which have their own validity, it appears that the opera becomes more complex and more rewarding. On the surface it is a ghost story. On another level it is a psychological thriller. However sometimes it seems even more ambiguous, so that sometimes the whole thing could be a figment of the Governess’s imagination, perhaps arising from her obsession with her employer. It is a drama of endless fascination. This is augmented by the composer’s wonderfully imaginative use of a chamber orchestra of thirteen players. A variety of percussion as well as piano and celesta provide creepily atmospheric effects. Orchestral interludes also cover the many scene changes, and are composed in the form of variations which turn the screw and tighten the tension. Originally, the Prologue was sung by the tenor who later sang Quint. Some productions have since been known to divide the two roles, so that the meeting can be mimed by the Governess and the uncle figure, which may perhaps add to the drama.

Characters
The Prologue (tenor)
The Governess (soprano)
Miles (treble)
Flora (soprano)
Mrs Grose (soprano)
Peter Quint (tenor)
Miss Jessel (soprano)

Plot Summary
The Prologue explains that the story is based on a manuscript written long ago in faded ink…a woman’s hand. It seems that a young woman answered an advertisement for a governess. At interview the employer said that her charges would be his nephew and niece. They lived in a house in the country. She would be in complete control. Under no circumstances is he to be troubled. She accepts. On taking up the appointment, the Governess meets Miles and Flora, and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose. All seems wonderful. Gradually, strange things occur and the Governess starts to feel uneasy. She sees a mysterious man, describes him to Mrs Grose and is taken aback by her reaction. The figure resembles Quint, a manservant who died in an accident. She sees a second vision in the schoolroom. This, it seems, resembles Miss Jessel, her predecessor as governess, who drowned. The behaviour of the children seems to show an awareness of these spirits. Miles has been expelled from school for unexplained bad behaviour. Mrs Grose begins to show signs of growing hysteria. The Governess becomes determined to save the children. The screw inexorably turns and leads on to tragedy.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1954

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
English Opera Group Orchestra
Jennifer Vyvyan (Governess), Peter Pears (Prologue & Quint), Joan Cross (Mrs Grose).

Just as The Turn of the Screw was widely recognised almost instantly as a potential classic, so this recording, made within months by members of the original cast, has been deservedly treated as a landmark. Apart from anything else, the quality of the recording, in mono, is amazing, and the immediacy with which the astonishing orchestration comes across still seems miraculous. Britten’s direction, and the genius of musicians such as the percussionist James Blades (once the drummer in the pit band of a Dundee cinema) stand the test of time. More recent interpretations may perhaps increase the complexity of this disturbing tale, but then decades of study have introduced even more layers of ambiguity to the tale than Britten’s team, never mind Henry James himself, ever imagined. Even so, Jennifer Vyvyan brings an appropriate sense of near hysteria to the part of the Governess. Peter Pears is not nearly as nasty as most Quints now appear. It is good to be reminded that one of the last outings of Anthony Besch’s 1970 Scottish Opera production – a good many years later, brought Pears up for his final Edinburgh Festival appearances, singing the Prologue. In this cast, Joan Cross makes Mrs Grose into a basically simple soul. The purity and sweetness of the young David Hemmings' treble is not as evil or knowing as some boys manage to make the part, but he projects everything clearly.

NAXOS (2 bargain-price CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1993

Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble
Felicity Lott (Governess), Philip Langridge (Prologue & Quint), Phyllis Cannan (Mrs Grose).

Steuart Bedford worked closely with Britten in his later years, and conducted the opening performances of Death in Venice. He continued to perform the composer’s works with great authority for years afterwards. This version is in superb sound, and comes at bargain price. Felicity Lott and Philip Langridge give outstandingly good accounts of the leading roles. Langridge is able to introduce a sense of foreboding even as early as the Prologue. Phyllis Cannan is a down to earth Mrs Grose, sounding more youthful than most, and Nadine Secunde is powerful as Miss Jessel.

VIRGIN (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 2002

Conductor: Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Joan Rodgers (Governess), Ian Bostridge (Prologue & Quint), Jane Henschel (Mrs Grose).

Perhaps the two distinguishing features in this recording are the unpleasantness Bostridge succeeds in projecting as Quint, and the unusual idea of casting Flora as a child rather than an adult soprano. The dramatic mezzo Jane Henschel makes an effective Mrs Grose. At the start she is quite an imposing, governess-like character herself. Joan Rodgers and Vivien Tierney are also excellent and Daniel Harding hignlights the contrasts in the score.

 

 

Also recommended is this DVD

The Cast

Flora
 
Governess
 
Miles
 
Miss Jessel
 a former governess
Mrs Grose
 housekeeper at Bly
Peter Quint
 a former manservant
Prologue
 

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