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The Ceremony of Innocence

The Turn of the Screw

Jennifer Vyvyan, soprano; Peter Pears, tenor; Joan Cross, soprano; Arda Mandikian, soprano; Olive Dyer, soprano; David Hemmings, treble. The English Opera Group Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Britten.

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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CD Label: London CD 425 672-2

Also compared are:

 2-LP box set, stereo

Helen Donath, soprano, Robert Tear, tenor, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Colin Davis on Philips.

2-CD box set, stereo

Joan Rodgers, soprano, Ian Bostridge, tenor, and the Mahler Chamber Symphony, conducted by Daniel Harding on Virgin Classics CD.


And, on DVD:

Britten: The Turn of the Screw. Helen Field, Richard Greagor, Menai Davies, Phyllis Cannan, Machiko Obata, Samuel Linay; Schwetzinger Festival, Stewart Bedford, conductor, on Arthaus Musik (1990).

Britten: Turn of the Screw. Lisa Milne, Mark Padmore, Catrin Wyn Davies, Diana Montague, Nicholas Kirby Johnson, Caroline Wise; City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox, conductor, on Opus Arte (2005).


  Like James Whale's 1935 film, The Bride of Frankenstein, Henry James novella, The Turn of the Screw, begins with friends gathered round the fireplace, trying to outdo one another with horror stories, especially those with unutterable sexual tensions. In the tradition of Poe and Bram Stoker (whose Dracula appeared only the year before), one of the friends reads from the diary of a woman, now dead, events detailing a visitation by ill-intentioned ghosts unto two young children in her care.  The tale is a hot air balloon ride to the dark side, and it must have curdled the blood of readers one hundred years ago.

First published in serial form in 1898, The Turn of the Screw has seen a number of realizations in other forms.  Among the most compelling are the 1961 film, The Innocents (adapted by William Archibald, whose film credits were limited to this and Hitchcock's I Confess, along with Truman Capote) and the Britten opera, composed in 1954. The film starred Deborah Kerr and was directed by Jack Clayton (best known until then for The Room at the Top.)  I'll come back to the film presently.

James's narrator is a young governess to two pre-pubescent children at a remote country estate.  She is newly employed by their uncle and guardian, a man who prefers to live in the city, physically and emotionally detached from the children. The impressionable governess, wanting to make good and please her employer (for whom she has an admitted crush), has been admonished to resist calling on him for support.  So when things begin to deteriorate, she meets the malevolence that haunts the house pretty much by herself and her vigilant imagination, aided by the trusted housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Little by little she becomes aware that the children have become distracted "infected" might be a better word from her point of view by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, known to the children in life, recently dead. The drama, then, centers on the battle between the governess and the ghosts for the hearts, minds and souls of young Miles and Flora.

The transition from book to stage was challenging. For example, while a story narrated by its principal protagonist is entirely suitable for a novel or a movie, it is just as unsuitable for opera as I trust you can imagine. For this reason at least, Britten and his librettist couldn't rely on the pages of first person internal process that James presents his readers to create the particular cold-blooded, yet passionate effect he desired. On the other hand, opera, being the overtly theatrical medium that it is, can engage the audience at primeval levels that the mere word, even aided by our imagination, cannot.

Similarly, the idea of a preamble depicting a gathering of friends doesn't work on the stage either, especially in an opera of such deliberate economical means. To include it would result in two Introductions. Not a good idea.  Instead, our valiant adaptors hit upon the simple, but subtle idea of beginning the opera with the opening words in the diary, sung as a prologue (in place of an overture) summarizing the action up to the point of the arrival of the governess at Bly, the estate where the children live.

One of the first things we notice about the musical forces for The Turn of the Screw is that there are no medium or low voices.  There is only one adult male, a tenor of eerily high tessitura. Add to that: the size and composition of the orchestra: 13 players (an irresistible number, is it not!) of 17 instruments plus a variety of percussion. The orchestration (2 violins, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, piccolo, bass flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, harp, piano, celesta, and percussion) is devised for maximum textural variety, nuance and, most importantly, transparency and luminosity.

The opera begins with an understated flourish on the piano. The narrator/singer might be placed alone on a bare stage, or remain offstage while the events describing the meeting of the uncle and the governess are acted out in mime. The entire scene is accompanied only by the piano, which has the effect of opening up the listener's imagination rather than trying to articulate it, as it might be if it were orchestrated. Moreover, it will not be missed that the narrator is sung by the same voice that later invests Quint, the principal antagonist of the drama, a coincidence that is not merely the result of economy of means, but seems calculated to confuse the point of view.

In the novella, the ghosts are not seen to speak with the children directly, but rather we learn of their influence from the Governess' observations and her several conversations about what she has witnessed with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who sees nothing other than the Governess's anxiety. Such subtlety is not typically the stuff of opera; instead the audience witnesses direct contact between the ghosts and the children and with each other, thus clarifying the question of our protagonist's sanity. The Governess rarely addresses the ghosts directly, who do not return the challenge, choosing to work only through the children. The final confrontation, involving only the Governess, Quint and Miles, is tricky to stage for this very reason. But when done well, it echoes the cruel ironic pathos of Traviata and Tosca.

The ghosts have much to offer, not least a kind of refutation against authority that children can find particularly appealing.  Their aim is to make their former wards their personal playmates for as long as it might suite them.  In today's lexicon, most would call this "molestation," even though sex is never made explicit in a world where only the hands and face are exposed.  Quint and Miss Jessel seem to be content to sublimate their own unconsummatable sexual energies into drawing Miles and Flora into their world presumably forever insofar as their "souls" are concerned. For if they were to survive the process, once the ghosts tire of their playthings, Miles and Flora would find no safe place in "civilized" society. Thus: molestation. [In the notes for the Virgin CD, there is a fascinating discussion of sexuality, as it occurs in Britten's operas in general, and this opera in particular.]

The re-titling of the film version reveals its prejudice: the children as victims of evil. The original title, on the other hand, implies process rather than object. The film reinforces its own judgment about things in the casting of Deborah Kerr, who was to Victorian and Edwardian propriety as Doris Day was to the concept of virginity.  Kerr's sense of the moral rightness of things informs her fear of what is going on about her, and her face and her voice in turn informs us. It is this representation of persona that is one of the things that distinguishes film and opera as art forms. Unlike, cinema, the composer relies on musical expression for his "close-ups."

In the film, the estate itself becomes a character, initially inviting in its quiet, though stark beauty; then, gradually, menacing something that a staged opera cannot achieve, but which James draws out in his book.  The movie is filmed in stark black and white, contrasting good (or more rightly, innocence) and evil, masterfully creating a sense of gothic horror and suppressed hysteria not much room here for moral ambiguity. The Governess' inexperience and her imagination or perhaps her lack of imagination--about the dark side, ghostly or human, leads her to question her own sanity, perhaps asking us to consider her as one of the Innocents. Britten's Governess, on the other hand, is far less suppressed. Her emotions, as we would expect in opera, are much more on the surface, exposed, even as her dress is not.

Then there is the question of complicity by the children.  It is this ambiguity that sets The Turn of the Screw apart from other ghost stories of its time.  Miles and Flora are, necessarily, active participants agents, even co-conspirators of the ghosts' will. Children, by nature, are curious, trusting, mischievous and completely narcissistic. Parents come along and try to make "good" citizens out of them. But a clever seducer is too much for a propriety that inadvertently makes them easy targets of dark forces, real and imagined.

Benjamin Britten's special gift was how well he set the English language to music not only in his opera, but also in his many songs, choruses (such as the exquisite Ceremony of Carols), and works for voice and orchestra (notably the elegiac Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.)  Except for those gifted composers of American popular song and musical theatre from the first several decades of the last century (and Sondheim, of course) no one writes better for our language. Think about opera in general, and how few in English remain in the "standard" repertoire. Even so, I do have one reservation about the setting of the text in this opera, which I shall get to shortly.

Britten's librettist and the person responsible for turning James' novella into one of the most important and affecting operas of the last century was Myfanwy Piper.  It was she who adapted Owen Wingrave (also James) and Death in Venice (Thomas Mann) for Britten some years later. Among her most important contributions in the present instance is the borrowing of a line from Yeats' The Second Coming, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." The text in which the line appears is itself pure poetry, brimming with sexual innuendo. It is an anthem of intent of the ghosts, sung first by Quint, then Miss Jessel, then together the only place in the opera where such an interchange occurs in one of the most chilling and musically powerful moments of the opera.

Yeats wrote his poem at the end of WWI; Britten composed this opera a few years after the end of WWII.  Yeats' apocalyptic sentiment seems to have even more relevance in today's political scene, where conviction and passion are more dangerous than ever before.  Given the context, we could do worse than consider Britten's Turn of the Screw as a cautionary tale. Here's the original context for "the ceremony of innocence."


    Turning and turning in the widening gyre

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

    The best lack all convictions, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity.


An interesting discussion of the poem appears here.


I first encountered The Turn of the Screw in its operatic form in the Spring of 1961 on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. It featured Judy Johnson, an undergraduate of exceptional natural vocal and dramatic gifts, as the Governess and Carl Zytowski, the director of the music department's Opera Workshop, as Quint.  Zytowski had a lovely high tenor voice, not unlike Peter Pears in his prime, but purer, with less vibrato. His Quint was chilling. A (very) fledgling composer myself, I attended a number of rehearsals, and was completely blown away: It was like Schoenberg's Pierrot Luniere, not as concentrated, but just as persuasive in its ability to stir the imagination of the macabre with only a few instruments.

I discovered the Vyvyan/Pears/Britten recording later that year. I can remember the effort required to reconcile the two events: the dynamic power of the live performance against the mere outline of one in a recording. It may have been a turning point for me as I let myself succumb to the hypnotic power and intimacy of the vinyl while all the while knowing how much I was giving up.

Probably the most familiar name in the cast conducted by the composer himself is Peter Pears: Britten's muse, and then some. Pears has a disembodied sound to start with, and he uses it well here, especially in those endless melismata he wails from the tower as he calls for his Miles like the part was written for him, which it was. By the way, the cast here is pretty much the same as in the London premiere of the opera just a few months earlier, so Britten had these voices and actors in mind when he wrote the piece, the "English Opera Group" being his special baby.

Then there are the two supporting adult sopranos: Joan Cross, steady as the loyal, but uncertain, Mrs. Grose; and Arda Mandikian as the enmeshed, eternally betrayed Miss Jessel a pitiable character if ever there was one, who bore the brunt of Quint's transgression against her by ending her own life.

Perhaps you noticed the name of David Hemmings, who sings the role of young Miles, and wondered if he could be the same fellow who believes he's photographed Venessa Redgrave alongside a corpse in Antonioni's Blow-Up. The very same chap, twelve years younger!  From all accounts, he was a stunner at that age.  Before his voice changed, he had a lovely treble.  Hemmings acquits himself well enough until the final scene when Britten, in a rare miscalculation, sets for Miles a series of lines addressed to his protector that don't quite scan.  In any event, I've never heard these lines delivered musically, even on the Philips recording or the Virgin CD, where Michael Ginn and Julian Leang are more secure.  On the other hand, Hemmings, worn out in the duel between Quint and the Governess in this scene, makes the Governess' pleas just that much more affecting.

Which brings us at last to Jennifer Vyvyan the best classical singer of the English language I know.  Listen to her lines from Shakespeare in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream in Peter Maag's stellar recording for Decca.  How does she do that?  Vyvyan nails the drama of this opera right into the cross.  I can't help choking every time as she realizes that her final victory over Quint comes at the highest possible price.

The much later Philips recording boasts luscious stereo sound and a good cast, including a youthful sounding Helen Donath as an appropriately idealistic Governess and Robert Tear (the heir apparent to Pears-but, alas, not). My main complaint about this performance is that it's too sweet.  While clarifying Britten orchestral textures, Davis emphasizes its wonder and mystery, but glosses over its horror.

The Virgin Classics CD with Joan Rodgers and Ian Bostridge, conducted by Daniel Harding, has more going for it. From the outset, every phrase, whether instrument or voice, is nuanced with expectant emotion. Joan Rodgers, as the Governess, displays an anxious, youthful anticipation and a disarming eager innocence that is quite engaging.  When Mrs. Grose first meets the Governess with "I am so happy to see you," Jane Henschel is fairly dripping with resigned sadness, as if she knows at some level that something lurks in the shadows. Julian Leang, as Miles, is sweeter and clearer than Hemmings; he is also more technically assured, which helps in the last scene. I suspect that Harding finds the same fault in Britten's writing for Miles here, for Leang doesn't so much sing them as speak them.  A good compromise, I felt.

Ian Bostridge is more pliant than Pears, but lacks the latter's pungency as well as Pears' otherworldly agelessness. Vivian Tierney, as Miss Jessel, is very good but also not the equal of her opposite number in the mono set. Her duet with Bostridge at the beginning of Act 2 blends well, but I miss the sinister aspect conveyed by Pears and Mandikian.

Harding lets us hear and "see" deep into the orchestral textures, even more so than Britten himself, but never at the expense of line. The recording is good, without being of demonstration quality. Even so, it isn't all that much more revealing than the mono LP, though it does present image and dynamics in greater scale. Perhaps it's only the medium, but for all its beauty and transparency, I find the Virgin set singularly cool, detached and lacking in fire and despair as compared to the mono. That said, it's easily the best recording of the opera since the original.

Finally, some brief thoughts about the two DVDs: The Arthaus Musik DVD is a filmed version in 4:3 aspect ratio of the staged opera from a live performance of the 1990 Schwetzinger Festival. The picture quality of the German production is good, the sound, rich and clear. It is imaginatively staged, though its intentions are contradicted by the director's frequent use of close-ups. In addition, continuity suffers by repeatedly cutting away to the conductor and orchestra at each of the opera's numerous interludes between scene changes. So, even though this is a filmed version of live staged performance, it is most unlike the experience that anyone in the audience might have. What worked for Bergman's Magic Flute, does not work here.

While the Governess, Quint and Miles are all admirably cast and sung, Mrs. Grose is far too assertive and, horrors! Flora is played by a grown woman.  And while the audience might have been deceived by her small size, though I doubt it, we are not. Worse still, the voice of a mature adult is entirely wrong for a 10-year-old girl. Caroline Wise in the Virgin CD is probably the best cast in this role of all the recordings reviewed here.  In the interests of full disclosure, Olive Dyer (Flora in the 1954 recording) was also an adult, but she doesn't sound anywhere near as full throttled as Machiko Obata, so she is not easily confused with the Governess or Mrs. Grose.  And, of course, we don't see her.

The Opus Arte DVD is quite a different matter: It is a widescreen presentation with ambitious production values, a cinematic presentation of the opera that takes full advantage of the medium. The Prologue, for instance, is sung in voiceover whilst the camera pans slowly in muted colors over the grounds of the estate as the children play their imaginary games and Quint roams at liberty. The director, Katie Mitchell, while taking no liberties with the libretto, does make liberal use of such voiceovers (often ignoring Britten's stage directions entirely), as when the governess is contemplating her arrival and later when the children show her about the grounds, and others that I shall not give away. The direct singing flows seamlessly from scene to scene along with the voiceovers.

Of course, there is considerable room for interpretation and development of themes here by virtue of its use of location, color and intercutting during the interludes and even while characters are singing to each other.  In fact, this film version is in stark contrast to The Innocents, less perhaps because it is sung, than because of it insistence on a subtext that is sometimes ambiguous, at other times unequivocal.  It is clearly a product of its time just as the 1961 film was of its.

Except for Lisa Milne, who is a little mature for the Governess (as James and Piper conceived her), everyone looks their part and sounds it, too. And, speaking of sound, the one instance that we could expect a major misstep the recorded voice on location is accomplished faultlessly.  For the most part, I couldn't tell if there was any looping of the vocals (except, of course, for voiceovers), no matter the location, indoors or out, this room, or that, or in corridors; all of which are realized with only subtle, but appropriate, coloristic differences. Major kudos.

The performances, Nicholas Johnson's Miles, excepted, are of the highest caliber.  Mark Padmore is the first recorded tenor to challenge the authority of Pears. His Quint is ethereal, yet menacing as required. The acting varies, with Johnson again coming up short. Still, this DVD is a must and, I feel, the best alternative and companion to to the original mono LP, whose ratings I offer below.  This recording was issued in the US in several editions: the one pictured above with black disc labels is the first US reissue; another with a similar cover in a long box with a different catalogue number and red disc labels is the original US release. Both are excellent.






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