“Did you enjoy the opera?”
I posed this question to several people whom I knew had attended the University of Iowa performance of Benjamin Britten’s, The Turn of the Screw (based on the Henry James novel) this past weekend. With thoughtful looks and wide eyes the verdict was unanimous,
“Yes, but it was creepy…and…do you think there was ppedopphilliaa?”
This same question first entered my mind during Act One, “the window scene,” when the Governess describes the strange man she has seen to the Housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Mrs. Grose is nearly sick to her stomach when she realizes that the Governess’ description is that of the late Peter Quint, the former valet of the house’s absent master. Mrs. Grose recounts the horrifying tale of Quint “having his way” with the former governess, Miss Jessel, and spreading his evil influence to the children, Miles and Flora. Jessica Faselt, whose rich and powerful voice causes the listener to shiver with the full realization of her tale, plays Mrs. Grose. Janet Ziegler, playing the Governess, adds to the drama of this scene, becoming hysterical when the full truth hits her: Peter Quint is a ghost. Yet as the drama unfolds the larger question becomes, who is the real villain? Could the governess, in fact, be the one infecting the children with her insane notions?
“The window scene” is when I first had an emotional reaction with Britten’s musical screw, slowly turning and twisting into my gut. Further analysis has proven that this musical aesthetic, paired brilliantly with the drama, builds from the beginning of Act One. In the first scene, “on the journey,” Britten introduces a 12-note theme whose intervals rotate in a screw-like fashion throughout the entire opera. This theme is varied throughout the short scenes, creating tonal centers that sequence from A to Ab for the duration of the act. By the end of Act 2, Britten has reached a tonal center of A by a different route. The tonal symmetry that Britten creates would surely be thrilling to a 20th century theorist but is perhaps missed by the majority of audiences. Regardless, there is an unmistakable sense of ambiguity and unease created by use of the 12-note theme and variations marked by disjunct melodies and chromaticism. No wonder I felt queasy…
Is it possible that Britten’s battle with tonality is a reflection of his personal struggles with social customs during the 1950’s? I argue, YES. During this time, Britten’s relationship with life partner, Peter Pears, would have been considered somewhat controversial. Likewise Britten’s music, which dabbles in atonality, wasn’t always well received by audiences accustomed to hearing more traditional, tonal music. However, in my 21st century opinion, the music Britten has created for this opera is perfectly suited to the thrilling, though terrifying tale by Henry James.
It is important to note that Britten took artistic liberty with James’ original story. One of these liberties was the decision to have the ghost characters, Peter Quint, played by James Thompson in this production, and Miss Jessel, played by Audrey Yoder, appear on stage as real people that are seen and heard by the audience. This makes them and their sexual acts more real and the governess appear less insane. In the original tale by Henry James, Quint and Jessel are not real characters in the story and are therefore believed to be a figment of the Governess’ insanity.
On an interesting side note, in this particular production Miss Jessel bears a striking resemblance to Bellatrix Lestrange, played by Helena Bonham Carter in the Harry Potter movie series. Even the instrumentation, namely harp and celesta used by Britten to create the sense of apparition, are reminiscent of John William’s magical theme. This begs the question, was this costume pared with the music intended to hold the interest of younger audience members? Perhaps the idea was that the children could imagine they were watching Harry Potter instead of sitting through this highly sexualized adult drama? And yes, incase you were wondering, children did attend this production. One particular child behind me kept asking her mother, “When is this gong to be over???”