Programme Note on Benjamin Britten’s Opera: The Turn of The Screw
Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of The Screw is a gripping ghost story based on Henry James’ disturbing novella of the same name. A prologue sets the scene of a young governess who has been given the charge of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at their country home. Act One reveals an unsettling history of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her relationship with the valet Quint, both sinister characters who it is hinted abused the children and died under mysterious circumstances. The governess starts to see strange apparitions around the house, which to her horror she realises are the ghosts of Jessel and Quint.
In Act Two the governess’s sense of evil increases, and she decides to write to the children’s Uncle to ask for advice. Under the spell of Quint’s ghost, Miles steals the letter and Flora begins to behave strangely. As the governess forces Miles to admit who made him steal the letter, he speaks aloud Quint’s name and falls dead from shock, leaving the governess in a fit of guilt and grief.
The opera was commissioned by the arts organisation Venice Biennale, and was premiered in Venice in September 1954 to a positive reception. It was staged in London soon afterwards and has since gained international popularity; in the five years leading to 2014 it was the second most performed opera in English. The musical theme is based on a mysterious and threatening 12-note motif which Britten develops throughout the opera. Often the music is tonal, but dissonance is also used to full effect, underlying the malice and evil which pervades the story.