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Innocence in the Balance: Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw'

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Ghost stories make for terrific theater, and over the centuries mysterious spirits have haunted a wide variety of operas -- from Weber's early Romantic thriller Der Freischütz, to Verdi's Shakespearian classic Macbeth, to Tchaikovsky's gloomy psychodrama The Queen of Spades. But when it comes to ghostly chills, few operas can rival Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, a drama that goes beyond spookiness to a place that's truly disturbing, where innocence seems as corrupt as evil.

Britten based The Turn of the Screw on a novella by Henry James, who once called the book "a shameless potboiler." Britten had a higher opinion of the work, calling it "glorious and eerie," and "an incredible masterpiece." The opera was composed in 1954, and its world premiere took place at La Fenice, in Venice, in September of that year.

The opera was suggested to Britten by his friend Myfanwy Piper, who also wrote the libretto. Her husband was an artist who had done scenic design work for Britten, and she went on to write the librettos for two more Britten operas, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice.

A lot has been said, and written, about connections between the story of the opera -- with its possibly erotic subtext -- and Britten's personal life. The subject matter of other Britten operas -- including Death in Venice, along with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd -- has added to the discussion.

Yet, like story shadowy story of The Turn of the Screw, the validity of those connections is hard to pin down. In the opera, the events portrayed may happen just as we see and hear them. Or, they might all be in the imaginations of its characters. And the opera as a whole may be filled with intricate allegory, hinting at real-life complexities. Or it might just be a ripping good ghost story, leaving us wondering what, in the end, really did happen. Ultimately, any conclusions drawn about the opera may depend mainly on its audience's point of view.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Britten's The Turn of the Screw in a production from the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna. The stars are soprano Sally Matthews, tenor Nikolai Shukoff and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, in a performance led by conductor Cornelius Meister.