In Haunt

On Wednesday 11 March Haunt Manchester’s Dr Emma Liggins and Dr Matt Foley (both of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University) went along to The Lowry to see Opera North’s The Turn of the Screw – a revival of the chamber opera written by Benjamin Britten and based on the story of the same title by Henry James.

The Turn Of The Screw

With its dark secrets, remote haunted location and disturbingly adult children, Henry James’ well-known tale of lost innocence The Turn of the Screw (1898) has inspired numerous adaptations on stage and screen. Film versions such as The Innocents (1961) starring Deborah Kerr and The Others (2001) starring Nicole Kidman have reworked the figure of the frightened, half-hysterical governess, haunted by the untold stories of the past and fearful that the children in her care are possessed by evil spirits. It has also appeared on Broadway and as a ballet. But audiences may be less familiar with its transformation into an opera by the English composer Benjamin Britten. Opera North’s chilling production of this disturbing ghost story, with its darkly-lit set and discordant music, brought the terrors of the unknown to Manchester’s Lowry theatre as part of a week of classic opera. As director Alessandro Talevi promises, ‘It’s got moments that really make your flesh creep!’

First performed in Venice in 1954, the operatic version of The Turn of the Screw draws out the dangers of domestic power struggles, as well as highlighting the home as a claustrophobic and terrifying space. Talevi explains that the audience share in the claustrophobia: ‘It’s like being enclosed in the space with them. There’s no escape’. In a house marked by the absence of a master, the servants and the children are prey to unseen influences and unspoken desires. The young Britten had been gripped by a radio broadcast of this “wonderful, impressive but terribly eerie and scary play” in 1932, before collaborating with Myfanwy Piper in the early 1950s to create a new performance of eeriness. Piper’s libretto plays with notions of the ambiguity of evil and wickedness, giving voices to the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who communicate with and beckon to the children, unlike in James’ original text. The children cannot escape from either the ghosts or their new governess, yet their deliciously creepy singing of nursery rhymes, playing with puppets and clawing at the window suggests their own affinities with their spectral others.

The Turn Of The Screw

One of the highlights of the production is the distorted shadowy set, reminiscent of an expressionist or Surrealist painting with its strangely sloping floor, pointed tower, over-sized window and menacing four-poster bed. In a number of scenes the cast make shadows on the walls, hide behind furniture or emerge slowly from the darkness of the wings, as ghostliness becomes a key aspect of the aesthetic. Present on the stage throughout the performance, the governess, played with a feverish energy by leading soprano Sarah Tynan, never strays far from the bed, as if to reinforce that the ghosts may be all a dream. Key scenes from the novella, where the ghosts are first glimpsed by the tower and the lake in the grounds of Bly, are captured by the revelation of a surreal garden behind the nursery wallpaper, where Miles runs manically. The ghosts then appear to be both inside and outside, glimpsed through the giant window but also intruding into the bedroom, always watching.

To capture the ghostly on stage is a difficult endeavour, though the production of terror in the theatre through the ominous twanging of the music, the eerily echoing church bells and moments of silence and darkness clearly works well in this operatic vision. As Sigmund Freud had reflected in 1919, darkness often generates the heightened emotional responses to the uncanny. The apparitions are clearly visible on stage, circling the governess’s bed and sitting at her desk, in ways which might seem more uncannily ambiguous in James’ novella, with its obscurities and shadows. Piper’s libretto adds an important scene where Quint and Miss Jessel sing to each other over the governess’s sleeping body. With her long red pre-Raphaelite hair and flowing black dress, Eleanor Dennis, in her Opera North debut, sings Miss Jessel’s song of betrayal, ‘lost in my labyrinth … despised, betrayed, unwanted’, like a lost soul. Emphasising her status as fallen woman by presenting her as pregnant is a shocking visible sign of her transgression, further emphasising her status as Gothic double to the girlish, white-clad governess. Another literally spine-chilling scene lights up the dead governess stroking the back of her double who remains facing away from the audience on the shadowy stage. Whilst the demonic power of Quint often dominates stage and screen performances, Dennis’s tormented Miss Jessel glides around the stage as the most compelling figure of female evil.

The Turn Of The Screw

The live orchestration of Britten’s score brings to life the complexities and subtleties of his twelve-note “screw” theme, which is first heard in the prologue, and variations of which follow across the episodes and interludes of the piece as a whole. The music rises in the first half, as the tension at Bly builds, and then begins to descend in the second half, mirroring the governess’s fall into madness, as the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel take prominence. Musical tensions are heightened by some visual staples of the horror film, like the uncannily rocking rocking-horse and the gradually materialising faces outside the window. These tensions are only resolved, musically speaking, at the opera’s narrative end and resolution.

Watching The Turn of the Screw was an enthralling experience, both visually and musically, which enhances understandings of James’ psychological study of innocence and evil. Although this was a one-night-only performance of Britten’s opera in Manchester this season, you can still catch the show in Nottingham next week. There is also a digital recording of the performance livestreamed from Leeds Grand Theatre earlier this year, which you can view for free on the Operavision platform of the Opera North website until August 2020. And if your appetite is whetted for the music of the night, the new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera starts at the Palace Theatre in Manchester on 26 March 2020. With their spooky soundtracks, these musical reinterpretations of turn-of-the-century Gothic classics lure us into a dark world of possession, terror, darkness and the theatricality of the uncanny.

By Dr Emma Liggins and Dr Matt Foley 

Photographs by Tristram Kenton, provided by The Lowry 

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