Britten’s ‘Turn of the Screw’
On January 24th-26th Nashville Opera will offer a production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling ghost story based on Henry James’ novella of the same name. Premiered in 1954, it features one of Britten’s favorite narratives, corruption and innocence coupled with the conflict between good versus evil, here set within a staid domestic Essex country house.
One of the best horror operas of the genre
The opera is regarded by many as the finest of all Britten’s stage-works, with much of the music derived organically from a twelve-note tonal “screw-theme” heard near the work’s opening. From a broader perspective the work is organized into a prologue and two acts with 8 scenes apiece; it is a tautly constructed work with an
immense sense of claustrophobia and dramatic strength–it is one of the best horror operas in the genre. Richly scored for a unique chamber ensemble of piano, celesta, bells and harp as well as four strings flutes, oboe and cor anglais, the score is not only delicate but the timbre and silences require a masterful and and exacting delivery.
For this production, Nashville Opera has cast a number of interesting singers. Juilliard trained Soprano Lara Secord-Haid will play The Governess, perhaps the main protagonist, a young and intelligent but volatile woman. Her part requires a bright and agile voice and is perhaps the most demanding in terms of acting. Her opening Aria “Nearly There” demonstrates all these characteristics quite well.
Tenor Michael Anderson who we last heard in Nashville Opera’s holiday double bill, Amahl and the Night Visitors and Pepito, will play Peter Quint (and one expects he will sing the prologue), a part (one of many) that Britten wrote for his personal and professional partner Peter Pears. Pears was noted for his instrument’s reed-like timbre, which had a remarkable expressivity even if it lacked warmth and color–attributes Anderson would do well to model in his depiction of a ghost!
Another veteran of the Holiday production, mezzo-soprano Kaylee Nichols will perform the role of Mrs. Grose the housekeeper and Governess’s confidante, a role that is typically delivered in a plain, maternal way, but her reminiscences in Act One provide her with the opportunity for nuanced expression. The children, Miles (Caleb Killingsworth) and Flora (Helen Zhibing Huang) provide the fulcrum of the work’s morality. Of the two, Miles is the more important part; his possession and particularly the line “Peter Quint, you devil” at the work’s intentionally failed denouement is perhaps the most chilling moment in opera. Further, it will be quite exciting to watch Killingsworth, a Belmont senior music major deliver the line!
One of my favorite things about Nashville Opera is their alternative productions. Each year they tend to put on two major repertoire pieces in the fall and spring and complement them with one or two pieces from further afield, and performed in the alternative (but wonderful) space at the Noah Liff Opera Center. Whether it is Carly Simon’s Romulus Hunt (2014-5 season), Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox (2015-6), or Tim Cipullo’s Glory Denied (2016-7) these productions are often one of the season’s highlights. If all goes well with this production, The Turn of the Screw on January 24-26 at the Noah Liff Opera Center will join that list.