The Turn of the Screw

Benjamin Britten

3 Oct - 23 Oct 2019

The Turn of the Screw

A ghost story. Revealed. Turn by turn.

Benjamin Britten’s haunting operatic version of Henry James’s famous novella The Turn of the Screw is a chilling ghost story, saturated with menace. The story follows a young governess, performed by internationally acclaimed Kiwi soprano Anna Leese, as she arrives at a remote country house to care for two children, with only written instructions from an absent guardian who advises that he is not to be contacted. Things only get stranger.

What is real and what are the imagining of a troubled mind? The novel doesn’t make it clear, and Britten and librettist Piper leave it equally ambiguous in the opera. This is a narrative just ambivalent enough for us to project upon it our own fears.

Contains adult themes, recommended for 15 years and older.

The action unfolds through a prologue and sixteen scenes of an episodic nature. These are connected by musical variations of the ‘Screw’ theme built around a twelve note row. The sequence ascends in the first Act and descends in the second Act.

A male figure introduces us to a ‘curious story’, that of a young governess hired by a handsome guardian to instruct his niece and nephew, two young orphans. Furthermore, he has instructed her to follow three rules: never write to him about the children, never ask about the history of Bly house and never abandon the children.

Act I
The Governess, traveling to Bly, wonders about the children and her capacity to look after them. Miles and Flora - together with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, welcome the Governess. Mrs Grose assures her they are clever and good. The Governess feels a strange connection to Miles. When a letter from Miles's school arrives informing her that Miles is expelled and with no reason given, it is a huge shock. Mrs Grose's protestations and the sight of the children playing reassure her; she decides to ignore it.

While outside, the Governess sees a a figure on the tower whom she first imagines to be the children's guardian. But it is not. He disappears. Later, as the children are playing indoors, the Governess sees the man again, gazing in at the window. Mrs Grose identifies him as Quint, the master's former valet and Miles's companion, who "made free" with the Governess's predecessor, Miss Jessel. Both are now dead. Horror-struck, the Governess fears that he has come back for Miles, and swears to protect the children.

In the schoolroom, Miles recites his Latin lesson for the Governess, while Flora competes for her attention. Miles recites an odd poem, and the Governess wonders who taught it to him.

Sitting by the lake with Flora, the Governess catches sight of a woman all in black, who disappears as mysteriously as she appeared. The Governess believes Miss Jessel has returned. She becomes convinced that both children are lost.
At night, Quint calls out to Miles, and Miss Jessel to Flora. The Governess comes upon them as the ghosts disappear and asks Miles what he is doing. "You see, I am bad," he answers.

Act II
Quint and Miss Jessel argue. Jessel accuses him of betrayal. He is interested in another kind of companion. Together they proclaim, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The Governess feels that she is lost in a labyrinth, unable to decide how to act.

In the churchyard, the children sing a gently mocking variation of the ‘Benedicte’. Mrs. Grose finds their play sweet; the Governess finds it horrifying. She tells the housekeeper that the children are not with them but are under the power of Quint and Jessel. Mrs. Grose urges her to write to their uncle, but the Governess declines. Mrs. Grose takes Flora into the church and Miles challenges the Governess, asking if his uncle shares her suspicions. Stunned by Miles’s challenge, the Governess resolves to leave Bly.

In the schoolroom, the Governess finds Miss Jessel. Confronting her – Jessel vanishes. Believing the ghosts might not yet have the upper hand, the Governess writes to the guardian.

The Governess tells Miles that she has written the letter and begins questioning him gently about what happened in the past. Miles does not answer. Quint calls to him.

Quint's voice is heard encouraging Miles to retrieve the letter. He complies. During Miles's piano practice, the Governess realises that Flora has slipped away - to meet, she suspects, Miss Jessel. She and Mrs Grose go in search of her.

At the lake, the Governess accuses Flora of seeing Miss Jessel, who remains invisible to Mrs Grose. Flora denies it, and accuses the Governess of cruelty. She leaves with Mrs Grose. The Governess realises she has lost Flora.

After a night spent listening to Flora raving in her sleep, Mrs. Grose decides that she must take the child away from Bly. The Governess is left alone with Miles, who eventually admits that he took the letter. When the Governess asks who made him take it, Quint warns Miles not to betray them. The Governess demands a response from Miles. The boy, distraught, eventually gives her the answer.


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A chilling ghost story, saturated with menace. Benjamin Britten’s haunting operatic version of Henry James’s famous novella 'The Turn of the Screw'.

Governess Anna Leese
Prologue/Peter Quint Jared Holt
Miss Jessel Madeleine Pierard
Mrs Grose Patricia Wright
Miles Lukas Maher/Alexandros Swallow
Flora Olivia Forbes/Alexa Harwood

Conductor Holly Mathieson
Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Set and Costume Designer Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Designer Matthew Marshall
Assistant Director Eleanor Bishop

Opera House
October 3 & 5 at 7.30pm


ASB Waterfront Theatre
October 18 & 23 at 7.30pm
October 20 at 2.30pm

Orchestra Wellington
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

A New Zealand Opera production

Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after a story by Henry James Published by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.

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