Major Operas | The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten | Modern Era

First performed in Venice on 14 September 1954 at Il Teatro La Fenice, this chilling ghost tale is based on Henry James’s short story, with a libretto written by Myfanwy Piper. The action ignites as a new governess arrives at Bly House to take care of two children, Miles and Flora.

Depending on the stage director’s interpretation, the ghosts that haunt the house are either a figment of the children’s imagination that the Governess is drawn into believing, or she herself creates a tempest that draws on actual events and people who once lived in the house. Either way, the role of The Governess is a dramatic and musical tour de force.

Although based on a row of 12 chromatically organized tones, this row, known as the ‘Screw Theme’, does not follow the rules devised by Schoenberg. Instead, it forms a series of variations based upon 16 scenes (divided equally between two acts), each with a different tonal centre. By reappearing in every scene, this theme tightens the tension, while Britten demonstrates his genius for orchestration when evoking an eerie, semi-real world that is punctuated with children’s nursery rhymes.

Composed: 1954
Premiered: 1954, Venice
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after Henry James’s tale


A governess has been engaged to look after two children. She may not contact their guardian, an absent uncle.

Act I

The Governess is travelling to Bly House, worrying about her new post. Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, is waiting with Miles and Flora, who take the Governess to see the house and grounds. Miles has been expelled from school, but the Governess and Mrs Grose cannot believe that he is bad.

Out walking one evening, the Governess sees a man at a tower window. She describes the man to Mrs Grose, who says it must be Peter Quint, the former valet, who had an evil effect on the children and Miss Jessel, their former governess. Quint and Miss Jessel are both dead. The effect of the apparition on the children becomes more evident. She briefly sees Miss Jessel whilst walking with Flora beside the lake. Flora must have seen her, yet says nothing. She despairs that she cannot save them. Quint and Miss Jessel sing to the children, displaying the extent of their power over them.

Act II

Quint and Miss Jessel appear, discussing their motives – a desire for power that will compensate for their previous lives. Miss Jessel is rejected by Quint. He wants a follower, while she wants a soul to share her woe. The Governess feels the evil and, worse, imagines it. Flora and Miles have strange rituals that she doesn’t understand. Mrs Grose urges her to write to their uncle, but Miles challenges her and she feels that she must flee the house.

The Governess confronts Miss Jessel, who waits for Flora in the schoolroom, threatening revenge. She cannot abandon the children, so writes to their uncle. She tells Miles about the letter and asks what happened here...

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