Turn of the Screw, The
  • Benjamin Britten. Opera in a prologue and two acts. 1954.
  • Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James.
  • First performance at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 14th September 1954.
CHARACTERS

The Prologue

tenor

The Governess

soprano

Miles

treble

Flora

soprano

Mrs Grose, the housekeeper

soprano

Miss Jessel, a former governess

soprano

Peter Quint, a former manservant

tenor

The Prologue introduces the story of the Governess, who had accepted a position at a country-house to take charge of two children, whose guardian, a young man-of-the-world, had no time for them. She is flattered at the trust he puts in her, and resolves to do her best to please him. At Bly, the house, she is welcomed by the children, Miles and Flora, and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose. The setting seems idyllic, but gradually she becomes aware that all is not well. Miles has been expelled from his school, although he, like his sister, seems angelic. It is little by little apparent that the children have been corrupted by the former governess, Miss Jessel, herself seduced by Peter Quint, the master’s man-servant. Although both are dead, they continue to haunt the children, exercising their corrupting influence, against which the Governess struggles. In the end she challenges Quint for the soul of Miles, but the boy dies in her arms, while Flora, who has turned violently against the Governess, is taken away by Mrs Grose, in an effort to save her.

Britten’s remarkable chamber opera takes the musical form of a 12-note theme and following instrumental variations. These divide the 16 scenes, and therefore have a practical theatrical purpose, as well as a musical one in providing the musical material from which each scene is derived. The work is symmetrically constructed, with each variation in a new key, and with miraculous scoring that evokes the atmosphere of evil that Quint and Miss Jessel offer. In spite of the actual appearance on stage of the ghosts, the mysterious nature of the original story by Henry James, where much is left unsaid, is preserved and extended.

There is a lively overture to Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and witty comedy in a work that follows earlier custom in its contrast of manners.