Britten - The Turn of the Screw

When a Henry James novella was dramatised on radio in 1932, a young Benjamin Britten happened to be listening. Something in James’s eerie tale spoke to the budding composer, as he recorded in his diary afterwards.

Twenty years later the more mature Britten went on to write his chamber opera based on The Turn of the Screw. He composed it in just four months, in 1954, and it was premiered at the Venice Biennale that year. The composer collaborated with Myfanwy Piper on the libretto. Peter Pears sang the Prologue and the role of Peter Quint.

The opera is both ghost story and psychological drama. Are the strange events real? Could they be the imaginings of a governess tasked with looking after two disturbed children in a country house? Why does the children’s uncle forbid all communication about them? What role did the deceased Miss Jessel and manservant Peter Quint play in their lives? Have they really returned as evil spirits to possess the children?

Britten’s compositional approach pays tribute to Alban Berg, with whom Britten had hoped to study as a young man. Britten employs a classic twelve-note row based on a cycle of fifths. Fragments of the note row are developed in each section of the opera, which follows the structure of a theme and variations. The action is punctuated by instrumental interludes, echoing Berg’s opera Wozzeck.

Berg was a particularly suitable influence given his interest in dark, dramatic tales. The Turn of the Screw is certainly that. Scored for a small ensemble, a sense of claustrophobia develops in this tightly structured work, and it builds to a devastating climax.

Released to mark the Britten anniversary year in 2013, this LSO Live recording has Andrew Kennedy and Sally Matthews in the leading roles. Making his debut on the label, Richard Farnes conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with exceptional flair and authority. It is a rich experience, though maybe not for those of a nervous disposition.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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