The Turn of the Screw

It was with a certain amount of trepidation we went to hear Britten’s The Turn of the Screw yesterday evening. Not because the Byre Theatre’s opera productions have ever let us down, but because in researching The Turn of the Screw we had discovered it revolved around a 12-tone thematic construction, a thing which we have before now found challenging. We blame this on our first imperfect  introduction to it through  exposure to Wozzeck, an opera to which we still have a deeply visceral and vehement reaction, though we can and do acknowledge the genius behind its creation. Last night’s revelation though was that it’s not the 12-tone system or even atonality we can’t stand; it’s just Wozzeck.

The Turn of the Screw, perhaps more than Berg, whose work predates Schoenberg’s scale, relies on a twelve-tone sequence to separate its scenes. It recurs in a theme-and-variation structure and goes on to forms the basis for the opera. More musically competent people have before now dissected it’s importance to the opera, and the symmetry of the scene division. We suspect that it works for us in Turn of the Screw to better effect not because it’s given a tonal recontextualisation but because it serves the story.

Each reintroduction of the theme makes use of instruments that prove integral to the ensuing scene. More than that though, the theme darkens as the narrative does. The perpetual shifting of the key signature too denies us the luxury of settling into familiar territory; the foundations of this opera are perpetually shifting. It’s the synthesis of form and function at it’s best, and it made for riveting listening. We couldn’t look away, much as we wanted to.

This more than anything is perhaps what set us contrasting it with Wozzeck, a story we feel sure set out to achieve the same end. The deliberate choice for dissonance, for atonality necessarily reflects the kind of story being told and should make for uncomfortable listening. It should also draw us in, and that’s something Berg has never done. It feels too consciously an exercise and we disengage. Perhaps more problematically, the shifts in key and structure in Wozzeck feel sudden. It isn’t that part of the floor has shifted, it’s that the floor has been pulled out from under our feet and left us scrabbling for any kind of hold on the narrative.

The Turn of the Screw in contrast feels much more gradual as it slips into darkness. It mirrors speech rhythms, and we listen more closely. It spawns competing, often dissonant musical lines that demand the listener lean closer to understand. It is when we do that darkness asserts itself and doom feels imminent. The ceremony of innocence, as the characters repeatedly assert, is indeed drowned, but it is too late, because having been drawn in, we must know the ending.

Of course, we don’t think it hurt either that the cast –especially the boy playing Miles –was a commendable one. Music, as we’ve no doubt said before, is very much a living thing and its success is in the hands of the singers. These ones more than served their craft and we’re sorry we were ever doubtful.

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