By Eva Huber
20th century chamber opera composed by Benjamin Britten, based on the novella written by Henry James
Very soon I shall know,
I shall know what’s in store for me.”
I awaited the start of the evening with the same feelings the governess experiences when she’s on the stage for the first time. While the audience is ignorant of the night’s procedure, the governess starts a distinctly new period of her life, serving as a governess in a big mansion far away from home.
But firstly, one gets to know the circumstances that bring the governess to Bly.
Henry James puts the story into its frame in a somewhat more complex way than Britten’s adaptation. In the opera, the prologue is told by an anonymous man reciting a letter. The audience is even closer to the actual happenings: the reader of James’ novel hears about the story through an unknown first person narrator, who retells the evening where he heard the story from Douglas. The latter supposedly got them as a handwritten record from the governess.
In Britten’s adaptation, the audience only has to cross one of these “borders” and is, therefore, in the same place as James’ narrator. Anyone who has read James’ novel would automatically feel as part of the group on Christmas Eve, albeit one is not sitting in an old shabby haunted house but in the ostentatious premises of the Opera House. However, I immediately forgot about the fact of being in a neo-rococo theatre and I was drawn into the story. The story itself is not very plot-driven, which does not mean that it is any less brilliant. All the same, it is a dense novella – not full of happenings but rich in emotions, bewildering moments and uncanny appearances.
For us spectators, many questions arise. Are we to see a Victorian ghost story? Or are the ghosts the governess’ hallucinations and Henry James is concerned with hysteric women? Are the children innocent or are they in cahoots with the ‘dead’, Mrs. Jessel and Quint?
These questions remain unanswered until the end and the active audience will not be given a rational matter that could explain these tragic and disturbing events, which are build up steadily and escalate towards the end.
The stage gives the perfect projection surface to create this frightening atmosphere, which is equal to what one experiences when reading the book. The stage is divided by two plain white walls with cut out windows, and it is constantly turning in both direction – sometimes very slowly, sometimes a bit faster. Thus, the perspective of the scenery changes, modifies and challenges the viewer’s orientation. Only very few objects are occasionally incorporated, for instance a doll house or a bench. The simplicity of the stage scenery with its bright cold lighting is effective as it leaves the room open and makes it almost impossible for the characters to hide. The boundary between indoors and outdoors is unclearly set and makes the whole scene even more puzzling.
The formally structured music composed by Benjamin Britten is emphasised by the 16 times the curtain is dropped. The orchestra only consists of 13 musicians, who contribute significantly to the ghostly atmosphere. With their precise playing, they maintain the tension until the very end.
It does not matter whether you have read the book or not (although, I encourage you to do so!) – this opera is definitely worth seeing.
(As students, we are lucky enough to be able to get hold of very good seats. Just be there 30 minutes prior to the start and pay 20.- for the best seats that are still available. So if you have not made any plans for Saturday (17 October), you definitely know what to do now. If not, they The Turn of the Screw plays for the last time on 23 October.)