The Peabody Opera Theatre presents

The Turn of the Screw

music by Benjamin Britten

libretto by Myfanwy Piper

after the story by Henry James

Members of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra

JoAnn Kulesza, guest conductor

Garnett Bruce, stage director

Erhard Rom, set designer

Douglas Nelson, lighting designer

Thursday–Saturday, November 15–17, 2007 at 7:30 PM
Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 3:00 PM
Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall
Peabody Conservatory of Music
1 East Mt. Vernon Place
Baltimore, Maryland
Admission $25 / Seniors $15 / Students with ID $10
Box Office: 410/659-8100 x2, or book online

This production is funded in part by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council.
Presented by arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Publisher and copyright owner.

Photographs by Cory Weaver          Peabody Opera home

Deborah Kerr in a scene from THE INNOCENTS
Deborah Kerr as the Governess in a scene from The Innocents

The Turn of the Screw, which premiered in Venice in 1954, was the third and arguably the finest of Britten’s three chamber operas which cemented his reputation and essentially created a new genre. Like The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947) before it, The Turn of the Screw calls for a small cast of soloists and an orchestra of only thirteen players. Musically and dramatically, it is also the most compact of the three. A ghost story, the action is confined to an isolated house in the country, with no access to the outside world. Britten responded with music that is equally concentrated, the entire score being held together by a few obsessive motifs, and its many short scenes separated by orchestral variations on a single theme, that start out expansive and charming but become increasingly claustrophobic as the screw turns.

Henry James by John Singer Sargent  Britten at around the time of THE TURN OF THE SCREW
Henry James Benjamin Britten

Henry James referred to his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw as a “shameless pot-boiler.” But that is only one small example of the many kinds of indirection played by the author in this small masterpiece, in which nothing is as it seems and the reader is lulled into believing one thing only to be surprised by another. Even the story cannot be approached directly; in print it is introduced by a narrator quoting from a faded manuscript that came into his possession years before; in the brilliant libretto by Myfanwy Piper (to whom Britten would turn for Death in Venice near the end of his career), this becomes an enigmatic prologue. The manuscript is the memoir of a young impressionable Governess (she is never named) who travels to a country house named Bly to look after two orphan children. There, she is greeted by the well-meaning but unimaginative housekeeper Mrs. Grose and by the children themselves, Miles and Flora. But things begin to go wrong. Miles is unaccountably expelled from school. The Governess sees a stranger in the grounds; from her description, the housekeeper identifies Peter Quint, the former valet. Quint, it appears (for nothing is ever explained directly) held some kind of sexual mastery over Miss Jessel, the former governess. But both are now dead, killed in mysterious circumstances. The new Governess becomes convinced that the ghosts have returned to involve Miles and Flora in their perverted lives, and sees it as her duty to rescue them.

Peter Wyngarde as Quint and Martin Stephens as Miles  Clytie Jessop as Miss Jessel and Pamela Franklin as Flora
From The Innocents: Miles haunted by Peter Quint, and Flora by Miss Jessel

The story’s enigmas held a peculiar fascination amid the uncertainties of the postwar years. In 1961, the book (as adapted by Truman Capote, among others) became a Hollywood movie, The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, from which many of the illustrations on this page are taken. Literary critics also began to question the objectivity of the Governess, making her one of the prime examples of the concept of the “unreliable narrator” (a term coined by Wayne C. Booth in the same year, 1961). Are the ghosts real, or are they the figments of the young woman’s hysterical imagination, stirred perhaps by infatuation with her employer, her own restrictive upbringing, or her exaggerated sense of duty? Britten keeps both ghosts silent until the very end of the first act, but he does make them eventually appear on the stage. But the modern theater can just as readily portray the landscape of the mind as the reality of the everyday world, so these ambiguities remain open to any director that cares to use them; the particular approach taken by Peabody director Garnett Bruce will be known only when the curtain rises.

Set model by Erhard Rom
Model for the Peabody production by Erhard Rom

The particular design challenge of the opera is not merely that its sixteen scenes take place in almost as many different locales in and around the isolated English house, but that its setting must equally occupy the interior of a tormented mind. Garnett Bruce and Erhard Rom, the set designer, were originally fascinated by the mysterious nested boxes of American artist Jospeh Cornell (see illustration at right). But Rom’s eventual design is simpler, consisting of ominously tilted walls and panels that can slide together and trap the characters in a maze from which they cannot escape. The opera is coached and conducted by Peabody Opera Music Director JoAnn Kulesza; this will be her second production of the opera.

Singers in the Opera

*Singers listed first appear in the Thursday and Saturday performances.
Passing the cursor over the singers’ names will show some previous roles.
Prologue  David Kirkwood
Christopher Manna
The Governess  Danya Katok
Lindsay Thompson
Mrs. Grose  Elizabeth Dow
Annie Gill
Miles  Carolyn Badders
Betsy Bates
Flora  Stephanie Kruskol
Jillian Goldin
Miss Jessel  Carole Dorlipo-Miles
Leah Serr
Peter Quint  David Kirkwood
Adam Caughey