Review: Houston’s Haunting, Inscrutable “Turn of the Screw” – January 29, 2010

It’s been 112 years since Henry James’ serialized ghost story absorbed the interest of the readers of Colliers magazine. To its author’s surprise, it created a storm of controversy that has continued throughout the decades that followed the American author’s death. What evil lurks in the Bly mansion in Essex that appears to possess the minds and souls of two children, and causes the children’s Governess to enter combat with the apparitions of two deceased members of the mansion’s household?

In 1934, an especially provocative critique of James’ novella created a new flare-up in the “What’s ‘Turn of the Screw’ all about?” debate. Literary critic Edmund Wilson, near the beginning of his famous career, attempted to employ the then fashionable principles of Freudian psychology to the ghost story. Wilson suggested that the ghosts of the valet Peter Quint and the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel, were not real, but merely imaginative figments growing out of the new Governess’ sexual repression.

In the decade and a half following Wilson’s literary bombshell a counter-movement defending the reality of the ghosts’ presence emerged, clearly impressing art critic Myfanwy Piper. A friend of Benjamin Britten and his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, she suggested to Britten that she write the libretto and he the music for an opera based on the novella.  In their opera, the ghosts would not only appear to the Governess, but would be singing characters in the opera. Pears, who would create the part of Peter Quint (and also that of the Narrator in the prologue), encouraged the idea.

The concept of the opera evolved over several years. In the early 1950s in Britain, economic conditions created impediments to elaborate opera productions, and the decision was made to score the opera for a micro-sized orchestra and a cast of four adults and two children. This had the effect of making the opera accessible to many more small venues of the kind that would not be able to produce a large cast Britten work such as “Peter Grimes” or “Billy Budd”.  Paradoxically, however, it seemed to prohibit the opera’s accessibility to “main stage theaters” of the large international opera houses. Who among them produces operas that have orchestras with only 14 members?

Houston Grand Opera, as part of a series of Britten works, decided to include a successful production conceived by Neil Armfield for the Opera Australia. The production, holding its own in the the Wortham Center’s spacious Alice and George Brown Theater, did not seem overwhelmed by its surroundings, either visually or sonically.

[Below: Flora (Joelle Harvey) and Miles (Michael Kepler Meo), seated, are watched by the Governess (Amanda Roocroft) and Mrs Grose (Judith Forst); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The vibrancy of the small orchestra’s sound was remarkable. (The Houston Grand Opera routinely states that no amplification is ever used, except in the case of stage musicals with spoken dialogue, and the lack of amplification is testimony to the brilliant acoustics of the Brown Theater).

Britten’s instrumentation includes piano, celeste, harp and the otherworldly timbre of the cor anglais, permitting a rich sonic tapestry for both the human and ghostly worlds.

British tenor Andrew Kennedy proved an incisive Narrator in the opera’s prologue, emphasizing the psychological mischief that can result when children are raised without emotional support from those who are supposed to be their guardians.

Soon the prologue gives way to the story itself, presented as a series of scenes in two acts of just over 50 minutes each. Each scene is separated by an orchestral interlude. In these interludes, which comprise variations on the opera’s fundamental musical themes (representing good vs evil?), are some of the opera’s most striking musical passages.

The Governess (authoritatively sung by British soprano Amanda Roocroft in her Houston Grand Opera debut), in a large, dark red hoop skirt, muses on the mysterious instructions that accompanied her employment as she travels to her new home in Bly. Soon stagehands (dressed as 19th century tradesmen) move pieces of scenery in place to create the mansion’s elegant courtyard. The children prove to be charming and impeccably well-mannered.

But soon, the mood becomes darker. Roocroft’s Governess is stunned by the letter from Miles’ school expelling him as a threat to the other boys without further explanation, and soon is frightened by the appearance of Peter Quint (also sung by Kennedy), whom the household’s caretaker Mrs Grose (sung by Judith Forst) identifies by the Governess’ description as the household’s dead valet.

The Governess is not yet ready to believe ill of Miles (who is played in an astonishingly complete realization by boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo), but Britten and  lighting designer Nigel Levings make us aware of the aura of evil that surrounds him. During his Latin lesson as he sings of the meaning of the verb “malo (I choose)”, Miles’ shadow spookily lengthens to engulf the mansion’s fireplace wall. Meo demonstrated great performance skills as his hand movements seemed actually to be playing a piano piece of almost concerto-like complexity.

(Consistent with the controversies in meaning regarding virtually every part of James’ novella and of Britten’s opera, scholarly debates have recently erupted on how to translate the list of Latin verbs sung by Miles, taken from an older schoolhouse textbook, or the curious quasi-Anglican song sung by Flora and Miles on the way to church.  Oxford don Valentine Cunningham asserted that some of the words were slang for body parts and were sexual double entendres and thus were coded gay messages from Britten to “friends in the know”. The words that Cunningham assumed were coded messages are mostly the “Anglo-Saxon swear words” used by “naughty boys”, a term Miles uses to describe himself.

The convincing refutation of Cunningham’s thesis by Christopher Stray, who took issue with the “dirty meanings” that the Don attributed to certain irregular Latin verbs, did not even have to state the obvious – even if you concede that Professor Cunningham’s imputed translations were correct, all of these slang words would have been known and probably used by most of Britain’s and America’s population of young boys, both at the time of the opera’s premiere and the current day, and known and used by a high percentage of young girls as well. Perhaps some Oxford dons are not as streetwise as the average Anglophone kid.)

Joelle Harvey, as Miles’ little sister Flora, was taller and looked older than her part suggested (imagine trying to guess what size a child singer will be at performance time, when you have to establish your casts months and even years ahead of time). But she sang beautifully and exuded the persona of  a young, spellbound girl.

[Below: Flora (Joelle Harvey) appears to be in communication with the world of spirits, to the dismay of the Governess (Amanda Roocroft, behind right); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Soon another ghost become visible – that of the Governess’ predecessor, Miss Jessel (chillingly sung by Tamara Wilson), who appears to have a control over Flora, as does Quint over Miles. It is the Governess’ reaction to her appearance that begins the chain of events that leads to the denouement of the opera and the death of Miles. She writes a short note to the children’s guardian, asking for an appointment to see him.

[Below: the ghost of Miss Jessel (Tamara Wilson) sits at the school room desk used by the Governess (Amanda Roocroft, right); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Once the opera turns to the interactions between humans, young and old, and the two apparitions, Britten’s strange sonic world of the ghosts and director Armfield’s imaginative staging enhances the experience.

Perhaps the production’s most striking scene is when Miles, in his bed, having been caressed and comforted by the Governess, is queried by Quint on what the Governess wrote in her letter. The spellbound Miles steals the Governess’ letter on Quint’s behalf.

[Below: the boy Miles (Michael Kepler Meo) responds to the presence of the ghost of Peter Quint (Andrew Kennedy); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

After Mrs Grose leaves Bly with Flora in an effort to “save” her, Roocroft’s Governess and Kennedy’s Quint seem to do battle over the soul of Miles, who utters Henry James’ mysterious words “Peter Quint, You Devil” and dies in the Governess’ arms.

[Below: Miles (Michael Kepler Meo) is held by the Governess (Amanda Roocroft), who is determined to save him from  Peter Quint (Andrew Kennedy, right); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

What’s “Turn of the Screw”, be it the novella or the opera, all about? I believe that its meanings remain recondite, 112 years after the novella’s publication and 56 years after the opera’s premiere. As I’ve written elsewhere, if you are sure you know what it’s about – whatever you may think – articulate, intelligent students of the work can be found that will explain why you are wrong.

Does a work whose meaning will always remain a riddle deserve a place in the operatic repertory? I think it does. Every time one sees it, there is a chance to see it from a different perspective – another turn of the screw.

The ambiguity of the story and the ghostly presences seem to meet the 21st century mood.  Over a half century after its premiere, we can begin to concede that we never will know what it’s about. Its meaning is in the eye of the beholder. We are an audience, and many of us will connect with it, but all of us in a different way.

For six and half decades several of the Britten operas have evolved to become the pre-eminent representations of mid-20th century opera. Britten operas are kind to the human voice and, melody never having been banished from Britten’s work, attractive to the sophisticated ear.

“Turn of the Screw” is an opera whose music is immediately accessible and survives repeated hearings. It certainly provides an opportunity for imaginative staging. Armfield’s conceptualization in Houston is praiseworthy and worth traveling to see.

The opera also contains three of the most vivid operatic characters that Britten ever devised – the Governess, Peter Quint and Miles.  In Houston, Roocroft, Kennedy and Meo performed these roles brilliantly, and were well supported by Forst’s Mrs Grose, Harvey’s Flora, and Wilson’s Miss Jessel.

Even now, opera companies around the world are deciding how to observe the centennial of Britten’s birth in 2013, while trying to keep production costs at a minimum in this era of once more rampant financial distress.

There will always be logistical problems in casting the two children, but this challenge may be offset by the requirement of a much smaller orchestra and a manageable cast of just four adults. The production’s success in Houston will prove very interesting information to the large theater opera companies.