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FULL THE TURN OF THE SCREW Chicago 2023 Chicago Summer Opera

Video Recording from: YouTube     FULL VIDEO          Qries

Information on the Performance
Information about the Recording
  • Published by: Chicago Summer Opera  
  • Date Published: 2023  
  • Format: Streaming
  • Quality Video: 4 Audio:4
  • Subtitles: yessubs, ensubs  
  • Video Recording from: YouTube     FULL VIDEO

Making the Ghosts “Real”

In transforming Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw into an opera, composer Benjamin Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper were faced with a central dilemma: are the ghosts real?

While readers of the 1898 gothic novella are forced to decipher for themselves whether its ghosts are the cause of the Governess’ madness or a figment of her imagination, Britten and Piper curtail this ambiguity by writing them as singing characters. An analysis of how Britten and Piper set the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw reveals how their musical and narrative characterizations reframe the tale while maintaining its central elements of horror and suspense.

Quint, a former manservant at Bly, is the first of two ghosts who appear in Britten’s opera. He describes himself as the “smooth world’s double face,” referring to both his transient properties as a ghost and his deceitful nature. Miss Jessel, a former governess at Bly, is a “pitiable lost soul” consumed by revenge, according to literary analyst Llorens Cubedo. She associates herself with Gerda and Psyche, the forsaken beauties of Greek mythology. While Quint’s character is dynamically developed, Miss Jessel takes on the characteristics of a stereotypical ghost, subtly materializing in the location where she was wronged with the objective of exacting revenge.

Quint and Miss Jessel function as one ghostly unit, influencing the children and manipulating the Governess. In the last scene of Act I, they are musically united as Miss Jessel imitates Quint canonically, or in strict imitation. Miss Jessel is musically characterized as a follower, frequently copying Quint’s lead. Notably, Henry James never refers to Quint and Miss Jessel as “ghosts,” but as “visitants” and “visitors”.

The two characters are presented as foils of each other, with contrasting music and characterizations. Quint’s entrances are always accompanied by the celesta: an instrument which, as the name suggests, is often ascribed heavenly or other-worldly qualities. Miss Jessel is accompanied in the orchestra by the low vibrations of the gong, double bass, and bassoon.

Britten associates Quint with the pentatonic scale, which can sound “eerie in a mysteriously tuneful way,” carry exoticist or orientalist connotations, or even–especially when containing a tritone interval—evoke connections to the devil. The melisma, in which many notes are sung on a single syllable, is also used to characterize Quint. In the last scene of Act I, Quint repeats “Miles!” on a series of melismas. The melisma is often correlated with eroticism and, in this case, serves to musically imply a homosexual relationship between Miles and Quint. Curiously, Britten avoids use of the tritone interval, the conventional symbol of evil, in Quint’s musical lines. Miss Jessel’s music is distinguished by ascending intervals, as if she was “rising from the depths”. One ascending interval is notably a tritone: long referred to by its Latin name, “diabolus in musica” (devil in music). Through this polarization between the celestial and the diabolical, the ghosts themselves represent the overarching battle between good and evil.

The second act opens with a scene that has no basis in James’ novella, in which Quint and Miss Jessel appear onstage alone. With “Colloquy and Soliloquy,” Piper interpolates a backstory for the two ghosts, who are former lovers. According to the score, this scene occurs “nowhere”: a void in which time and space do not exist. A further artistic liberty is taken by Piper in the inclusion of a line from W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”. The word “ceremony” suggests a demonstration or exhibition, giving a more formal connotation than “The innocence is drowned.” While this line may refer to the ghosts’ corruption of the children’s innocence, it may also signify the instructional role the visitants have over the children. With this added scene, the audience witnesses the ghosts’ existence independent from the presence and influence of other characters.

By making the ghosts into singing characters, Britten frees Quint and Miss Jessel from the limited narrative perspective of the Governess. In the closing scene of Act I, the visitors and the children are alone onstage, which would be impossible if the ghosts were still confined to the Governess’ perspective. This decision makes the visitants’ control over the children more explicit, and this control manifests as specific motivational impulses for action in the adaptation. In James’ novella, Miles steals the letter that the Governess has written to Miles’ uncle, and Quint is never explicitly named as the motivator of this act. In Act 2, Scene 5 of the opera, Miles clearly follows Quint’s urging to steal the letter. The power struggle between the Governess and the ghosts for the children, implied by James, is realized through the ghostly characters in Britten and Piper’s music-dramatic setting.

Britten and Piper also meddle with the ghosts’ “realness” by manipulating who can see the visitors and when. Although the Governess can see the visitors, Quint and Miss Jessel speak only to the children. Mrs. Gross never even sees the visitants. In the final scene, as Quint frantically directs Miles, the Governess is unable to see the ghosts. It is not clear why the Governess’ ability to see the ghosts changes, but the reason likely relates to her level of madness in the final moments of the opera. The Governess’ perspective is similar to that of the audience, who can see the visitants and recognize their influence. The audience seems to have the only objective perspective, as they can decipher the ghosts’ impact from a distance.

James’ visitants undergo a significant transformation for Britten and Piper’s The Turn of the Screw, becoming singing and communicating characters. By writing singing parts for the ghosts, Britten and Piper lose some of the novel’s subtlety, but their version maintains the tale’s

central horror through suggestive music, ambiguous perspectives, and dramatic irony. As we, the audience, reflect on Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, perhaps we should not ask, “Are the ghosts real?” Indeed, the characters themselves answer this question. Rather, a far more complex and revealing consideration might be: “Whose perspective do I believe?”

– Sarah Esslinger

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