Scene4 Magazine-inSight

August 2010

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Turn of the Screw

In this episode of The Steiny Road to Operadom, the Steiny Road Poet has gone off the beaten path to Castleton, Virginia, home to maestro Lauren Maazel who invites young artists to his estate where he has full working theaters. On July 3, 2010, as part of the second annual Castleton Festival, the Poet experienced Benjamin Britten's edge-of-the-seat chamber opera The Turn of the Screw with libretto by Myfanwy Piper.

Britten's The Turn of the Screw is based on a novella by Henry James. The story revolves around a brother and sister who are wards of a man who hires a governess to care for them. As the opera opens, the audience learns from a narrator that the guardian tells the governess not to contact him, that she is on her own to handle the children who live in his country estate with the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Almost immediately unsettling things happen. Through a letter, the boy Miles is expelled from school and the Governess (who is never named in the opera or novella) sees ghosts who Mrs. Grose identifies as the guardian's former valet Peter Quint and the former governess of the children, Miss Jessel. More terrifying, however, is that these ghosts seductively prey on the children. Or at least that is what seems to happen.


While 'Screw' is a horror story and a psychological conundrum, it is also a case of two deaths not satisfactorily accounted for. Did valet Quint who was a young man really fall on ice and die? And what happened to the equally young governess Jessel? The rumor was that Quint and Jessel were having an affair but why then does Quint appear to Miles and Jessel appear to Flora? Also why did the letter from Miles' boarding school say he "is an injury to his friends"? Therefore, is Miles a bad boy or an innocent as the governess would like to believe?


The Steiny Road Poet would like to pause here for a moment to reflect on the influence Henry James had on the work of Gertrude Stein. For the S.R. Poet, the Steinian connection to The Turn of the Screw, apsychological thriller, came up first in the context of Stein's love of murder mysteries. In 1933, Stein wrote a detective novel Blood on the Dining Room Floor after she suffered writer's block brought on after the publication of her bestselling book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. While the S.R. Poet knew everything Stein wrote has a psychological framework, it was only in the experience of seeing Britten's and Piper's interpretation of Screw that she decided to dig in deeper to Henry James' influence on Stein. According to John Malcolm Brinnin in The Third Rose: Gertrude Stein and Her World, Henry James was the only "forbearer" of Stein's work [NY: Grove Press, p, 130]. In other words, Gertrude Stein said she looked to only one writer who influenced her work and that writer was Henry James.

In this context, one should note that Britten wrote fourteen operas (including one for children and a 1976 Christmas opera that was not completed) and two of these operas were based on short fiction by Henry James. (Owen Wingrave with libretto by Myfanwy Piper and based on a short story by James was Britten's 1971 opera for television.) Piper brought The Turn of the Screw to Britten's attention because she recognized Britten's interest in how adults corrupt innocent children. Certainly that is true in Peter Grimes, Britten's second opera, which premiered in 1945.

The bottom line on Henry James is that artists of significant talent found his work had immense staying power. That realized, the S.R. Poet is not sure that seeing one production of The Turn of the Screw is sufficient to judge whether the stage director did everything possible to make this complex story reverberate with all its complexities.

As to the Castleton Festival production, this is a revival of William Kerley's production that was presented in 2009 as part of the first Castleton Festival. Jonathan Solari served as this year's stage director. Kerley also created the production of Britten's The Beggar's Opera for the first Castleton Festival and it too was revived for this year's festival. The strongest performances were by Dominic Armstrong as Peter Quint, Greta Ball as Miss Jessel, and Zach Borichevsky, the narrator. Armstrong was particularly compelling both in voice and acting power. His heart-stopping scene where he climbed over the theater's balcony rail and perched on a narrow ledge above seated audience members while he sings with Ms. Ball sufficiently got everyone's undivided attention in the 140-seat theater.


One thing the S.R. Poet learned after she saw the production is that the Latin songs sung by the children, something Britten added that was not part of the novella, had coded homo-erotic meaning. Valentine Cunningham, a professor of English at the University of Oxford, documented this in an article in Guardian dated January 5, 2002. While it was clear by the end of the opera that Miles (played by Ryan Williams) was a corrupted child, there were opportunities lost in the interpretation of the Latin songs. Also Kirby Anne Hall as Flora did not seem to be the best choice for Miles' sister. In the novel, Miles is ten and Flora, eight. Ms. Hall, who is a college graduate, is not a child. On the other hand, Ryan Williams is twelve years old and seemed not only plausible for the role but probably could have taken the direction for a more complex character portrayal.

Also adding to the general tension of this opera is that Britten mixed twelve tone riffs and tonal lyricism into this composition. Some of the voice parts also require unusual tone slides. So while there is the Latin liturgical music, there is a modern dissonance that creates some of the moody edge to this work.

One final point—Nicholas Vaughan undulating walls were a surprising and effective addition to the minimalist staging.

Thus the Steiny Road Poet has taken a circuitous route for critiquing Castleton Festival's production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Nevertheless, the Poet is beginning to understand through commonalities Britten shared with Stein as to why the Poet has become fascinated with the work of Britten and why she will enjoy revisiting his operas for years to come.

Photos - Courtesy of Caselton Festival


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©2010 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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August 2010

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