The Turn of the Screw
OPERA IN A PROLOGUE AND TWO ACTS (1954)
Myfanwy Piper after Henry James
Benjamin Britten’s mysterious, arresting chamber opera »The Turn of the Screw« has a fragmented structure that reflects the main character’s own apparently fragmentary and possibly distorted perceptions and memories. Each scene casts a different light on the events, which are viewed through the lens of the governess’s memories. They do not coalesce into a unified whole, but instead feel more like a puzzle with missing pieces. Britten’s opera is based on an 1898 novel by Henry James that was influenced by early ideas of depth psychology. James once described the novel, with some understatement, as a »play of strange encounters«.
PROLOGUE A woman from a modest background, the daughter of a countryside vicar whose name we will never learn, is named governess at the country estate of Bly. Here, she is to take care of the two orphans Flora and Miles and provide for their upbringing. Her employer is the children’s uncle, who refuses to be bothered with such matters. A great responsibility weighs upon her shoulders. ACT 1 With great dedication, the governess approaches her task at Bly. Alongside the two children, there is also the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. At first, the closed off cosmos of Bly with the angelic children seems like a perfect idyll. And yet, gradually, the untarnished nature of this world is shaken to the core. A letter arrives; Miles has been expelled from school. The reasons are unclear, leading to an initial sense of unease. The governess believes she sees spectral beings wandering across the rooms of Bly. Mrs. Grose thinks she can recognize the former employees Quint and Jessel, who died under mysterious circumstances. The governess is convinced that Miles and Flora are in danger and that she must protect her charges and save them. In her fantasy, she hears voices calling for the children. ACT 2 The governess now can hardly find her way around Bly. She feels lost in her own »labyrinth« and the screw of disorientation continues to turn until she goes completely mad. The voices she hears become louder, the danger seems to grow. The governess tries to order events, as if she were reassembling the parts of a puzzle over and over again. Everywhere she suspects deception and seduction, is just about to flee. But then she decides to tell the uncle of the events. Due to this climax in events, Mrs. Grose leaves the house with Flora and travels to London. The governess is left behind with Miles, and is finally able to understand.