How do you tell a musical ghost story?

Article by Alexandra Coghlan

With its sunny auditorium, and summer soundtrack of children, cricket matches, dogs and peacocks, Opera Holland Park is an unlikely home for the claustrophobic isolation of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw – a gothic tale whose shadowy corners and shuttered rooms are peopled by ghosts and ghastly unspokens. Or is it? Atmosphere is everything in an opera that lives in the psychological games it plays with its audience, taking Henry James’s original Screw and turning it just that little bit further.

For director Annilese Miskimmon, atmosphere is not only the challenge but also the appeal of this, her first staging of the opera. “I see Opera Holland Park’s unique venue as an advantage,” she explains. “At the start of the opera there’s this false sense of normality – a young governess arrives at a beautiful house in the daylight, filled with hopes and plans. Then, as the sun goes down, the audience will physically start to feel the chill; the house is still the same, but in darkness it takes on an entirely different character.”

The house, in this case, is of course Holland House – the ruined 17th-century mansion destroyed in the Blitz that now forms Opera Holland Park’s permanent backdrop. It’s an architectural gift that will play a crucial role in Miskimmon’s reading of the opera.

“While preparing the production, we looked at a lot of stately homes that were later bought by institutions. The idea that these places would have an atmosphere left over from earlier traumatic events has been our starting point.”

“Many of the houses became public schools – places where sexual abuse was ignored or tacitly permitted, where children were alone without the protection of parents, and vulnerable to harm. So we’ve tried to combine and overlay the worlds of the two fathers of the opera – Henry James’s world of the family home and Britten’s own post-war, institutional era.”

Britten was just 18 when he first encountered Henry James’s “wonderful, impressive, but terribly eerie and scary” novella The Turn of the Screw. Twenty years later his own opera was premiered, but not before the composer and his librettist Myfanwy Piper had made some significant changes to James’s original. More translation than adaptation, the result exploits the ambiguity and flexibility of a musical score to tell stories that James – bound by the explicit language of words – was unable to. But how exactly does Britten go about telling his musical ghost story?

“The music itself is absolutely embedded with a sense of the uncanny, of impending corruption,” says Miskimmon. “It’s achieved particularly cleverly in Britten’s writing for the two children. Are they really the innocents they seem?”

“As a director I find it very hard to divide the opera into sections. Britten starts turning the screw right at the start and doesn’t stop until the end. Everything is wound so tightly that you are longing for some kind of release. But when you finally get it, in moments like that thrilling, passionate duet between Quint and Miss Jessel, it comes with a horrible sense of complicity in their ghostly celebration and perversion. By the end of the opera you should always feel a bit like you need to wash your hands.”

The power of Britten’s score lies in its ingenious and meticulous integration of music and drama into a single structure. It seems almost inconceivable now that a major critic (from Italy’s Il Popolo) should have criticised the opera at its premiere for its “fluent but undistinguished invention”, arguing that “the drama is lost in a notable vacuity of expression”. In fact, The Turn of the Screw is among Britten’s most tightly constructed scores. While James’s novella has only its unfolding plot as the thread to draw readers on to the horrible conclusion, Britten is able to mirror the process at a musical level.

The entire opera is constructed as a theme and variations. The 12-note theme (heard directly after the Prologue, in the piano) is the germ from which everything grows. The work’s climactic musical tragedy is already written, even in opera’s earliest moments – encoded into the music’s essential fabric. The theme itself is transposed in each of the instrumental variations, ascending upwards, stepwise, throughout Act I, before descending again by the same intervals in Act II. As an aural metaphor for turning a screw, ratcheting up the musical tension, it doesn’t get much clearer.

But Britten has another bombshell up his sleeve. The Governess confronts Miles in the final scene, begging him to speak Quint’s name. As Miles gives in, shouting “Peter Quint you devil!”, we hear the full 12-notes of theme reveal themselves in the orchestra. This theme, and Miles himself, have “belonged” to Quint since the very start.

The idea of an inversion (and, by extension, perversion) of the natural order of things is everywhere in Britten’s opera. At its simplest level we see this in the first encounter between the children and the new Governess. Tonality that has been so certain before, established in the simple, chattering conversation between the children and housekeeper Mrs Grose, suddenly turns off course, entering new and uncertain harmonic spaces.

As the Governess’s relationship with the children develops, this same childish simplicity and innocence manifests itself in nursery rhymes (“Lavender’s Blue”, “Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son”) that sit increasingly uneasily in their musical surroundings. Gradually this innocence is tainted by the Governess’s (and our own) suspicion, transforming from something pure into something uncanny and deviant.

The familiar tune “Lavender’s Blue” sits over orchestral textures whose chromaticism jars, doubts, while in “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” melody and bassline get out of synch, threatening the harmonic stability of the whole. Miles’s “Malo” song, however, is the best example. Even the text itself is revealed as ambiguous, and as the three different Latin meanings of “malo” become clear, so we start to see new layers of emotional and psychological meaning emerge too. What was initially a simple song suddenly seems anything but.

The inversions and reversals of the music are also textural. In a work that’s consumed with sexual violations, identity – and particularly gender – becomes fluid, unstable. In James’s book, Quint and Miss Jessel do not speak. Verbally there’s a divide between the living and these shadow creatures whose presence is felt but never asserted. In Britten’s opera they are given not only song but also speech, and the composer takes full advantage of this, finding a distinctive musical language and character for them.

While Miss Jessel is repeatedly masculinised, singing lower in the register and accompanied by darker double bass and gong, Peter Quint’s high tenor, by contrast, is associated with the glittering bell-timbre of the celesta – an instrument that would remain the touchtone for “Otherness” throughout Britten’s operas. Faced with such unexpected foes, enemies who don’t conform to social or musical expectations, the Governess herself changes significantly through the opera. Contrast the even rhythms and flowing lines the opening, where she is still a potential source of order and reason, to her Act II music. It becomes rapidly more hysterical and extreme in register, undermining her credibility with the audience even as she desperately tries to assert her rationality. Tonally too, we hear her struggle to maintain her grip on her “home” key of A. In Act II’s labyrinth aria we see her melodies contort and convulse as they try to escape the chromatic pull of the ghosts’ G sharp, but ultimately fail.

The Turn of the Screw is an ingenious musical riddle, a complex exercise in symbolism, metaphor and structural manipulation. But for all its hidden mechanisms and underlying intricacies, the opera is remarkable for its simplicity and dramatic directness. Recognising the power of James’s concise novella, Britten opted not for the full symphonic scoring of Peter Grimes or Gloriana, but for something altogether cleaner, leaner. So much of what he achieves is by suggestion, implication, rather than by statement. The power of the opera is as much is what is not present as what is.

All of which leaves us unsure by the end: can this all be true, or must we suspect the neurotic imagination of a frightened young governess in conjuring these demons? Miskimmon is open-minded.

“I don’t believe that this piece is one that should be solved by a director. What makes it so powerful are all the doors that it leaves open at the end. There is a kind of terrible urge in all humans to want to know the reasons why things happen. But in life, as well as some of the finest art, you often have to let go and accept that you may never know.”

Alexandra Coghlan is the Classical critic for the New Statesman magazine, and has written for The Times, The Independent, Prospect and Gramophone magazines