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The Turn of the Screw is a 20th century Englishmarker chamber opera composed by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The world premiere of the opera was given on September 14th, 1954, at the Teatro La Fenicemarker, Venicemarker during the Biennale festival. The original recording was made during that year, with the composer himself conducting.

At the time of the première, the opera was claimed to be one of the most dramatically appealing English operas. In two acts, it has a prologue and sixteen scenes, each preceded by a variation on the twelve-note 'Screw' theme. In places, strange and out of the ordinary intervals can be heard , as well as character themes such as "The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned" sung by Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Roles

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 14 September 1954
Prologue Tenor Peter Pears
Governess Soprano Jennifer Vyvyan

Miles Treble David Hemmings

Flora Soprano Olive Dyer
Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper Soprano Joan Cross
Miss Jessel, the former governess Soprano Arda Mandikian
Peter Quint, the former manservant Tenor Peter Pears


Synopsis

Time: The middle of the nineteenth century


Place: Bly, an English country house


Prologue

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 Londonmarker 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.

Act 1

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 for threatening other children. The Governess is sure that Miles, like his sister Flora, is too innocent to have done such wicked things. 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. The Governess doubts that she saw anything, but decides to confront Mrs. Grose. The housekeeper tells the Governess about Peter Quint, the former valet at Bly House. Mrs. Grose implies that Quint was a pederast who preyed on Miles, and that he had a sexual relationship with Miss Jessel, the young and beautiful previous governess. Mrs. Grose also also implies that Miss Jessell, too, had sexual relations with the children. The housekeeper could do nothing, as Quint cleverly intercepted her mail and threatened her with physical harm. But when Miss Jessel became pregnant and her depravity was exposed, she abandoned the children and fled, soon thereafter dying alone. 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 teaches Miles Latin when he enters into a trance-like state and sings a song which reveals that he has been a victim of Quint's depravity.

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 Seamarker. 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 realizes 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.

Act 2

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 choral chant. 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 bizaare behavior. Alarmed, Mrs. Grose tells 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 realizes things are much more dire than they seem. She resolves to leave Bly House with the children.

After church, the family returns home. The Governess goes into the children's schoolroom where she sees the ghost of Miss Jessell 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 of what she has seen and heard.

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. Distracted by his performance, Flora slips off to go to the lake. When the two women realize 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 close to them, but Flora merely 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. The Governess realizes that Flora has become possessed and deranged. Mrs. Grose agrees to take Flora and have her institutionalized. But the housekeeper tells the Governess that she knows Miles took the letter from the schoolroom. 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. 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.

The twelve-note 'Screw' theme

Instrumentation

Instrument Premiere Musician
First Violin Olive Zorian

Second Violin Suzanne Rosza

Viola Cecil Aronowitz
Cello Terence Weil

Double Bass Francis Baines

Flute, Alto Flute, Piccolo John Francis

Oboe, English Horn Joy Boughton

Clarinet, Bass Clarinet Stephen Waters

Bassoon Vernon Elliott

Horn Charles Gregory

Harp Enid Simon

Percussion James Blades

Piano, Celesta Martin Isepp


Lyric and melodic sources

For the children's music, Britten drew words and melody from a number of traditional British nursery rhymes, including Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son and Lavender's Blue. Of particular note is Miles' song "Malo." The lyrics to this are a mnemonic for beginning Latin students. The word malo can be either a form of the adjective for "bad", or the first-person singular of the verb malle, "to prefer," which has an irregular conjugation and is a common stumbling block for students. Malo could also be a form of the scientific name for the apple species. The rhyme Miles sings helps students to keep in mind the three possible meanings for "malo" when encountered in a text for translation: adjective of wickedness, verb of preference, or apple tree? The Latin words that are used in the lesson scene have been examined in more detail for their homosexual innuendos.

The line "The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned" sung by Quint and Miss Jessel is taken from the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.

References

  1. Whittall, Arnold. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism. Cambridge Introductions to Music, p.153. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-68200-8 (pbk).
  2. Valentine Cunningham, "Filthy Britten", The Guardian (London), 5 January 2002. retrieved 4 November 2009.


Further reading

  • The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5.


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