The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the most unsettling ghost stories ever written. And Benjamin Britten’s operatic version as part of Opera North’s new season at The Lowry is equally chilling.
When a governess agrees to take care of two children at a remote country estate, little does she realise that her life will never be the same again …
Here are out top five reasons why psychological thriller, The Turn of the Screw is the spookiest opera you will ever see.
- A scary soundtrack
All the best horror movies rely on music to ratchet up the tension and The Turn of the Screw score is no exception. Whenever a ghost appears, the music changes – rather like a Hitchcock film – and the deep voice of the dead valet Quint comes as a real shock when you first hear it among all the higher female and children’s voices.
Britten connects each piece of the action with a recurring theme which mimics a screw tightening and untightening. Simple but surprisingly spine-chilling! The conductor Leo McFall comments, “The words without the music make a brilliant ghost story. The words with the music make a tense psychological thriller.”
2. Innocence corrupted
The fact that it’s two children who may be possessed by evil spirits makes the piece all the scarier. One of the most unnerving parts in the opera is when the boy, Miles, sings his lessons in a trance-like state. There is simply no other operatic aria like it.
When the children perform nursery rhymes together, it also sounds incredibly eerie as there is a horrible creepy undertone beneath the sweetness which hints at a completely different meaning. This idea of innocence masking something evil has been used many times in films, but it sounds even more uncanny in opera.
Two of the main characters in the opera are dead. We discover early on that both the valet, Peter Quint, and the previous governess, Miss Jessel, have died yet, if we are to believe everything the Governess tells us, their restless spirits still stalk the inhabitants of the house.
“There’s this moment where the Governess realises that what she’s just seen was a ghost and then suddenly everything changes for her,” says soprano Sarah Tynan who is singing the part of the Governess. “It’s terrifying.”
One thing is for sure – the ghosts are given to turning up when least expected for a real edge-of-the-seat thrill!
4. Trust nothing and no-one
The Turn of the Screw takes the idea of the unreliable narrator to new heights. Although we can see – and hear – the ghosts, we still don’t know for certain whether they’re real or the just the product of the Governess’ fevered imagination.
This production is unusual in that the Governess never leaves the stage suggesting the action is all being filtered through her consciousness. Or is it? It is unclear whether the children are as corrupted as the Governess believes – and, like all the best ghost stories, even the ending is ambiguous.
5. What’s in the shadows?
The set looks innocent enough, but everything is slightly out of kilter: the window and the bed are too big; other things too small. The oversized four-poster suggests the childhood nightmare of monsters lurking underneath the bed, and people – real or imaginary – hide in the room’s dark shadows or look in from outside.
Even the children’s toys take on a life of their own: look out for the rocking horse rocking by itself. What’s more, all of the action takes place in the same room which adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. “It’s like being enclosed in the space with them,” according to director Alessandro Talevi, “There is no escape.”
The Turn of the Screw is being performed at The Lowry on Wednesday 11 March as part of a season which also includes Kurt Weill’s hard-hitting, Street Scene and Mozart’s comic caper, The Marriage of Figaro.
Opera North is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 10-14 March 2020.
Tue 10 Mar The Marriage of Figaro 7.00pm
Wed 11 Mar The Turn of the Screw 7.30pm
Thu 12 Mar The Marriage of Figaro (audio-described) 7.00pm
Fri 13 Mar Street Scene (captioned) 7.00pm
Sat 14 Mar The Marriage of Figaro 7.00pm