Great moments in opera: The Turn of the Screw

September 4, 2013

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw premiered in 1954, just one year after his ill-received Elizabethan opera Gloriana, and it is generally regarded as a return to fine form. If memory serves, it sticks closely to Henry James’ original, though the reality of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel is less doubtful in the opera than in the story.

It is a chamber opera; Britten asks for just thirteen instruments, including a piano which features prominently in the score (and, at times, in the stage action). Given this scale, the opera is suitable for light, small voices; two of the principal parts are sung by children, after all. I would imagine that it is best seen in a small hall. (I myself have not seen it live.)

From the point of view of its musical material, The Turn of the Screw is virtuosic. Britten generally resisted the allure of Schoenberg and the serialists — which is part of his attractiveness — but the music for this opera is actually based on a twelve-tone row. Britten has furthermore written the music of each scene as a variation on this row, giving the whole work a rare formal unity. Not that one — or, at least, not that I — can hear these subterranean connections.

It has been argued that a thematic thread running through many of Britten’s stage works is that of childhood innocence overcome by the evils of the world. Britten had, throughout his life, a great love for children, composing many works for them to sing and hear, and he seems to have been troubled by the fact that their gaiety and naivety should be marred by contact with the sin and disorder of the world and society. One can see this to some extent in Peter Grimes, in which Grimes’ young assistants suffer at his hands, or in Billy Budd, in which Billy — a child at heart — is entrapped by the envious malevolence of his superior officer.

In any case, the theme of corrupted innocence is certainly present — indeed, it is front and center — in The Turn of the Screw. As if to underline the point, Britten and his librettist make good use of Yeats’ lamenting line: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. If anything could serve as a short precis of the story, that would do.


There are few clips from this opera on YouTube, and most are of dismal quality. I did find one, and here it is: after arriving at the country house, the Governess sings of how,  having now met her two young charges, her initial anxieties have been laid to rest. No sooner does she say so than she has her first fleeting encounter with an unexpected presence in the house. The aria is sung here by Sara Hershkowitz:

All that remains on YouTube are larger, unfocused chunks of the opera; I’ll link to one such here, if only to give a better idea of what it sounds like. In this segment, chosen more or less at random, the Governess has just finished sharing with the housekeeper news of her strange encounter (above), and has learned in turn the story of Peter Quint. In this clip she returns to the children, her fears much revived. Miles sings his principal aria (on the theme “Malo”) and then Flora sings her eerie aria on the banks of the manor’s lake. This taken from a 1980s film version of the opera:


As I watched and listened to the opera this week, I found myself pressed to make an unwelcome admission: I do not actually enjoy this opera as much as I would like to, nor even as much as I thought I did. The reasons, I think, are several. Though Britten was rarely a great melodist, the deficiency of memorable musical material here is quite severe; the vocal lines are often very angular and the harmonies often jarring. Arguably this is appropriate to the story Britten is telling, but I found it soured my experience. Could this be related to his effort to structure the music on the basis of a twelve-tone row? I don’t know.

Also, the chamber orchestra is a thin frame on which to hang the music of an opera. I once went to a student performance of Don Giovanni that was remarkably inexpensive, and when I arrived I learned why: it was being performed with piano accompaniment only! Needless to say, something was missing. Obviously the trouble I’m pointing to in Britten’s case is not as severe, but it does tend in that direction: I found myself missing the richer palette of sounds that an orchestra affords.

Finally, I am not convinced that Britten succeeded in conveying the drama of the story effectively. There is something strangely inert about it; the eerie, haunting quality of the original is muted. It is possible that this deficiency is performance-dependent: it bothered me while I was watching a film version of the opera this week, but it has not bothered me previously when I have only listened to the piece. It is hard to say. I would certainly like to have the opportunity to see The Turn of the Screw live on the stage.

4 Responses to “Great moments in opera: The Turn of the Screw

  1. Osbert Parsley Says:

    I love The Turn of the Screw – it is probably the Britten opera I know the best. It was done in Toronto by the COC Ensemble Studio several years ago in a small hall (what was then called the DuMaurier Theatre at Harbourfront, although I think it has since been renamed). In that context the drama was very effective. I think the effectiveness of the opera as a retelling of James’s story can be questioned, however: having Quint and Miss Jessel appear on stage and sing a duet detailing their evil intentions does not exactly maintain the ambiguity of the original.

    Britten’s use of a twelve-tone row in this opera is a good example of a structural feature that may be interesting to the analyst but doesn’t affect the listener’s experience in a meaningful way. Although the basic row of the opera includes all twelve pitches, it consists entirely of consonant pitches (fifths and whole tones), and so the result sounds nothing like an “orthodox” twelve-tone piece. Unfortunately, it is easier to circle tone rows and identify their permutations than it is to account for the subtler musical effects that a skilled composer can create.

  2. cburrell Says:

    A hall of that size would be ideal, I would think, especially with singers of COC calibre. As I said, I would like the opportunity to see it in such a setting.

    I was thinking the other day that I have seen as many Britten operas live as I have the operas of any other single composer! I’ve seen Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The only other composers for whom I’ve seen three are Mozart (Don Giovanni, Cosi, and Die Zauberflote) and Puccini (Tosca, Boheme, and La Rondine). I’ve seen 2 of Wagner, and then single operas by other composers. If pressed, I will admit that this is not actually very interesting, but I was at least surprised.

    Are your comps over?

  3. Osbert Parsley Says:

    Peter Grimes is on at the COC next month – I am wondering if it’s worth the trip to Toronto to see it, since I’ve never seen it live. Most of the Britten operas I’ve seen have been smaller-scale productions (The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia).

    Comps are finished! Results should be out very soon, possibly tomorrow.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Well, I hope to be able to offer you congratulations very soon, possibly tomorrow. My wife is in the final weeks of preparation for her Royal College sub-specialty exams, for which she has been studying every night for the past ten months. As difficult as it has sometimes been, I know that the time between when she writes and when she gets the results will be the most stressful. I do hope you are not too anxious about the outcome.

    I saw Peter Grimes at the COC, but it was in the old hall. I remember thinking that the voices were not quite up to the job, but I may well have been sitting in a dead zone. I do not know who is singing in the upcoming production.

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