Opera in a prologue and two acts (duration 1 hour 40 minutes)
Libretto by Myfanwy Pipera, after the novella by Henry James
A quick introduction
When was it written?
30 March – September 1954. The first performance was on 14 September 1954 at Teatro La Fenice, Venice.
What’s it about?
This is a mysterious ‘haunted house’ story. It centres on two parentless children, Miles and Flora, and their unnamed Governess, who is convinced that the children are being menaced by ghosts. It is never entirely clear whether the children can see the spirits, or if the Governess is imagining them. The tragic ending of the opera is coloured by the same ambiguity.
What does it sound like?
This is one of Britten’s chamber operas – for only six singers and a small orchestra. The format is ‘theme and variation’: the orchestral interludes between the scenes are variations on an original theme (first heard after the Prologue). The scenes are short, and each characterised by a mood, or an atmosphere, which grows increasingly sinister throughout.
Watch & listen
Did you know?
1. The original prologue included a theatrical ‘knock, knock, knock’ before the first notes of music.
2. The opera is constructed around a ‘theme and variations’ form: each musical interlude between scenes is a variation on the opening theme.
3. The governess is unnamed in Henry James’ novella and in Britten’s opera – but in early drafts of the libretto she is called Miss Giddens.
4. Britten had a painful bout of bursitis in his right shoulder during the composition of this opera and had to write some of it with his left hand.
5. David Hemmings was cast as Miles in the original production. He went on to become a very successful film actor in the 1960s.
Time and Place: Bly, an English country house, mid-19th century
In the Prologue, the tenor describes a written account of the action, in which a young woman tells how she accepted a position in a house with two children on the understanding that she would never contact their guardian.
Act 1. The main action sees the Governess travelling to Bly with trepidation but she is welcomed by the housekeeper Mrs Grose, and takes an instant liking to her young charges, Miles and Flora. A letter, however, arrives from Miles’s school, dismissing him as ‘an injury to his friends’. She decides not to discuss it with him. Seeing a strange man on the tower in the grounds, the Governess describes him to Mrs Grose, who identifies him as Peter Quint, the guardian’s valet, who ‘made free’ with the former governess, Miss Jessel. She left and died, and Quint subsequently died himself. The Governess fears for Miles. At the lake, she becomes aware of the presence of Miss Jessel and that Flora has pretended not to see her. Quint and Miss Jessel then call to Miles and Flora at night, and though the Governess intervenes she does not question the children.
Act 2. The Governess next sees Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. She decides to write to the guardian, but Miles – lured on by Quint – steals the letter, and distracts the adults with his piano playing so that Flora can go to Miss Jessel. Mrs Grose is unable to see the ghost, but her night spent with Flora convinces her that something is badly wrong and she takes the girl away. When the Governess confronts Miles with her suspicions, Quint approaches and speaks directly to the boy, who suddenly dies in the Governess’s arms.
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