Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898, has been adapted numerous times – for theatrical stage and cinema screen as well as Britten’s 1954 operatic version. Its story of a grand house, the mysterious deaths of two servants, and the question of whether they are haunting the current inhabitants, is perennially satisfying, and satisfyingly scary. In the original story, and in most subsequent adaptations, the question of whether the ghosts are ‘real’ or whether they are a figment of the main character’s imagination is usually left unresolved. As Nazan Fikret explains in this week’s film the unnamed Governess, who is charged with looking after two children, either sees the ghosts haunting the children and fears for their moral and physical safety; or she is imagining it, perhaps because of unrequited and repressed feelings of love for her employer, the children’s absent uncle.
In Britten’s opera, the ghosts are physical present – and they sing – and for some, this lessens the dramatic tension of the opera by apparently dispelling any debate about their ‘reality’. Yet Britten himself said that ‘Myfanwy Piper [the librettist] and I have left the same ambiguities as Henry James did’, and the many productions of the opera since 1954 have used this aspect for great dramatic effect. Nazan, who played the character of ‘Flora’ numerous times from an early age up until her 20s, describes the rich potential for character exploration in the opera, as well as Britten’s remarkable skill at writing for the voice. It is a fascinating, and genuinely unsettling work.