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Good Turn

Turn of the Screw

There's sex and violence of a more interior nature in Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James's classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw. It's creepier, too, since children are involved in nameless abuses that may, or may not, have happened.

A young, virginal governess arrives at a desolate country house to oversee its two orphan children, Miles and Flora. At first the children seem absolutely angelic, but troubling signs appear, or so she thinks. The governess is haunted by Quint, the house's valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess, both of whom died the previous year under mysterious circumstances. She's convinced that they've returned to claim Miles and Flora, who in some unfathomable way have become corrupted. By the end of the tale, the children have been destroyed by the governess's implacable will.

The James novella can be read as a Victorian exposé of repressed sexuality with imaginary ghosts, or as a macabre story with real dead people, or as a combo platter. What makes the tale so gripping is that you can read all sorts of nasty things into it. As the ultimate Victorian, James never mentions sex, yet sex pollutes the story, and as the protagonists are little children, that angle is quite unnerving. The opera's libretto, by Myfanwy Piper, errs in making the ghosts most definitely alive. They don't talk at all in the book; in the opera they quote Yeats. They're more literal than necessary and a lot less horrible.

Britten uses a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments for his musical palette (never have so few sounded like so many), expertly led by maestro Patrick Summers, who negotiates through Britten's intellectually complex theme and variations as if they were simple C chords. The cast is first-rate, with a commanding Amanda Roocroft as the steadfast, increasingly neurotic governess.

Britten's musical texture is dense and layered, with scales overlaid upon scales. None of this is easy listening, but it conveys the psychological turmoil at the story's heart. The music sounds chilling, like something horror writer H.P. Lovecraft would hum if he were a superlative composer.

 
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