Based on Henry James’s chilling novella, Britten‘s The Turn of the Screw tells the story of a governess, desperate to protect her children from evil as they experience strange encounters at a remote country house.
The plot centres on a young Governess who is sent to Bly, a large country estate, to care for two children. She has strict instructions from their guardian never to write to him, never to ask about the history of the house, and never to abandon the children.
It isn’t long before the Governess starts to see apparitions around the grounds. When she describes the sightings, they are identified by the housekeeper as the previous governess Miss Jessel and former valet Peter Quint, who both died not long ago. As the children’s behaviour grows increasingly strange, the Governess becomes convinced that these ghosts have returned to claim Miles and Flora – and vows to protect them. But are the phantoms real, or is it all in the Governess’ fevered imagination?
Opera in 2 acts
Sung in English
About 1 hours 45 min + interval
Bly, an English country house
The middle of the nineteenth century
A singer known as Prologue tells about a young governess (who remains unnamed throughout the opera) he once knew who cared for two children at Bly House. She had been hired by their uncle and guardian, who lived in London and was too busy to care for them. After hiring her, he laid three stipulations on the Governess: Never to write to him about the children, never to inquire about the history of Bly House, and never to abandon the children.
The Governess is apprehensive about her new position. When she arrives at Bly House, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the children greet her. When the Governess sees Miles, the little boy, their eyes lock and the Governess feels as if she has a strange connection with Miles. Mrs. Grose interrupts their reverie and leads the Governess off to explore the beautiful land around the house. The Governess sings that all her fears are now gone. A letter from Miles' school arrives, advising the Governess that the boy has been expelled but giving no reason. The Governess is sure that Miles, like his sister Flora, is too innocent to have done anything bad enough for expulsion. Encouraged by Mrs. Grose, she decides to ignore the letter.
The Governess sings about her wonderful position at the house and the beautiful children she has in her care. But she is troubled by footsteps she has heard outside her door and cries in the night. Suddenly, she spots a pale-faced man perched on a tower of the house. When the man disappears, she becomes frightened and wonders if she has seen a ghost. Her mind is put at ease by the playing of the children, and their singing of the nursery rhyme "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son". Later she sees the same man looking in through a window. She decides to ask Mrs. Grose about the man. Based on her description the housekeeper tells the Governess about Peter Quint, the former valet at Bly House. Mrs. Grose implies that Quint may have been a pederast who preyed on Miles, and that he had a sexual relationship with Miss Jessel, the young and beautiful previous governess. Mrs. Grose hints that Miss Jessel, too, had a relationship to the children that seemed inappropriately close. The housekeeper did nothing, since Quint intimidated her, and she explains "it wasn't my place". Miss Jessel left the house and eventually died. Shortly thereafter, Quint died under mysterious circumstances on an icy road near Bly House. The Governess rededicates herself to protecting the children. The next morning, the Governess is teaching Miles Latin, when he suddenly enters into a trance-like state and sings a song, "Malo".
Later that day, the Governess sits by the side of a lake with Flora. Flora recites the names of the seas of the world, finishing with the Dead Sea. Flora's comparison of the Dead Sea with Bly House unsettles the Governess. As Flora plays on the shore with her doll, the Governess suddenly sees a strange woman across the lake who seems to be watching Flora. The horrified Governess realises that the woman is a ghost — the ghost of Miss Jessel, who has returned to claim Flora. The Governess hurries Flora home to safety.
That night, Miles and Flora slip out into the woods to meet Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. The children fantasize about a world where dreams come true. The Governess and Mrs. Grose arrive as the children are about to be possessed, and the spirits depart. Miles sings a haunting song about how he has been a bad boy.
The ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel reappear. They argue about who harmed whom first when they were alive, and accuse one another of not acting quickly enough to possess the children. In her room, the Governess worries about the evil she feels in the house.
The next morning, the family goes to church. The children sing a song which sounds similar to a psalm. Mrs. Grose declares that nothing can be wrong if the children are as sweet as this. The Governess tells her of Miles' unearthly day-dream song and Flora's bizarre behaviour. Alarmed, Mrs. Grose advises the Governess to write to their employer in London. At first, the Governess declines, recalling her employer's admonitions before she took the job. But when Miles mentions the ghosts of Quint and Jessel, the Governess realises things are much more dire than they seem. She resolves to leave Bly House.
After church, the family returns home. The Governess goes into the children's schoolroom where she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel seated at the teacher's desk. The spectre bemoans her fate, and sings about how she suffers in the afterlife. The Governess confronts the spirit, which vanishes. Believing the ghosts may not yet have the upper hand, the Governess changes her mind, deciding to stay at Bly House after all. Instead, she writes to the children's uncle, informing him that she must speak with him.
That night, the Governess tells Miles that she has written to his uncle about the spirits haunting Bly House. She departs. The voice of Quint calls out to Miles, terrifying him. The lights go out, and the ghost hovers over the terrified child. Quint tells Miles to steal the letter. The boy goes to the schoolroom, finds the letter, and takes it back to his room.
The next morning, Miles plays the piano for the Governess and Mrs. Grose. While the Governess is distracted by his performance, Flora slips off to go to the lake. When the two women realise Flora is gone, they search for her. Finding the girl at the lake, the Governess sees the spectre of Miss Jessel nearby - but Mrs. Grose sees nothing. The Governess tries to force Flora to admit that the apparition is there, but Flora denies seeing anything and hurls invective at the Governess. Mrs. Grose, convinced the Governess has gone too far, angrily takes Flora home. The Governess feels betrayed by Mrs. Grose.
That night, Flora begins to rant and rave about committing unspeakable horrors. Mrs. Grose agrees to take Flora away from the house. The housekeeper tells the Governess that the letter was never mailed and that Miles must have taken it. The Governess confronts Miles alone. As she questions him, the ghost of Quint pressures Miles not to betray him. Hysterical, Miles confesses that he took the letter. The Governess demands to know who put Miles up to it. Miles blurts out Quint's name. At the mention of his name, Quint's ghost vanishes and Miles falls dead on the floor. A weeping Governess cradles the dead child in her arms, singing aloud of her grief and wondering if she did the right thing after all.
Prologue – Tenor
Governess - Soprano
Miles - Treble
Flora - Soprano
Mrs. Grose - Soprano
Miss Jessel - Soprano
The former governess
Peter Quint - Tenor
The former manservant
Place of birth: Lowestoft, England
Place of death: Aldeburgh, England
Benjamin Britten was an English composer, conductor and pianist. He is the most played composer of opera born in the 20th century. His operas are at the forefront of his musical deed, but he also wrote a substantial amount of choral, vocal and orchestral works as well as chamber music.
Britten was born on the east coast of England in Lowestoft, Suffolk. At three months old he nearly died of pneumonia. Subsequently his heart was injured and the doctors were uncertain if he would be able to lead a normal life. He recovered better than expected. In his mid 20s he spent a few years in America with his life partner, the tenor and artistic collaborator Peter Pears. In 1942 they returned to England and the Suffolk coast and settled down in Aldeburgh. The town became Britten’s home until his death. It is also the home of the now renowned music festival, Aldeburgh Festival, that Britten founded in 1948.
Britten’s first opera Peter Grimes was written in 1945 and with its premiere came international success. During the next 30 years he wrote many of the masterpieces that are widely performed today across the world.
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony. ”
Britten hated to be criticized, loved poetry and he was a good friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Most prominent operas
The libretto is based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and was written by Myfanwy Piper, a British art critic and opera librettist. She is most known for writing the libretto for Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice.
1d2, 1d1, 1d1, 1 - 1, 0, 0, 0
perc, timp, harp, piano (celesta), strings
The Turn of the Screw premiered at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in 1954.
Aria - How beautiful it is (Governess)
Aria – Malo, Malo (Miles)