James on my mind

Portland Opera is presenting Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw in February, and so in preparation for my pre-performance talks, I’ll be refamiliarizing myself with a work I haven’t heard in a very long time and posting some of my observations on it over the next couple of weeks.

I’m also (re)reading the Henry James novella that served as the basis for the opera’s tightly constructed libretto. I intentionally put parentheses around that prefix because although I was assigned “The Turn of the Screw” for my freshman American Lit class, I never got past the prologue. Nothing made the slightest bit of sense to me. Sure, I recognized each of the individual words on the page, but when they were all strung together into what should have been something meaningful, I kept tripping over verbal speedbumps like this:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”

Excuse me?  And that’s just the first sentence!

I’m not sure why, but things are going much more smoothly for me this time around, and I seem to have settled into some kind of Jamesian flow. (I don’t know what that is, exactly, but I’m not going to fight it.) In order to get a better sense of the author’s style, I’ve even started in on “The Ambassadors,” a dense, sprawling, and puzzling novel that may take me several months–or at the rate I’m going, years–to finish.

Speaking of James, Laura Grimes had a terrific piece in this past Sunday’s Oregonian entitled “My adventures with Hank,” in which she recounted her well-meaning (but  ill-fated) attempts at slogging through “The Ambassadors.” (Her description of trying to read it on the bus is priceless.) I got such a kick out of what she wrote that I emailed her about Turn of the Screw and my own ongoing encounters with the author. I hope Laura’s able to catch one of the performances at the Keller.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “James on my mind

  1. James Bash

    What recording of this opera do you recommend?

    • drammapermusica

      Hi James,

      You really can’t go wrong with Britten’s own 1954 recording for Decca, with the very same cast–Peter Pears, Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Cross, and David Hemmings–that premiered the work in Venice. The sound quality is surprisingly good for a mid-1950s mono set, and the performance is about as near to definitive as we’re likely to get. It’s available as part of a 10-CD collection that includes four other Britten operas (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Rape of Lucretia, Death in Venice, and Gloriana), but I’ve also seen it listed individually on amazon.com.

      If you’d prefer something recent, there’s the very affordable 2003 Naxos reissue of a Collins Classic recording with Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott, conducted by Britten’s close associate Steuart Bedford, or the 2002 Virgin Classics recording with Ian Bostridge and Joan Rodgers, under the direction of Daniel Harding. They’re both extremely well sung and played, but if I had to choose, I’d probably opt for Harding’s more evocative reading.

      By the way, I plan on providing a few short examples from each of the three recordings in subsequent postings. Stay tuned…

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  3. I’m looking forward to the production, because The Turn of the Screw was the only James book that I got an ounce of entertainment out of.

    Good luck with your blogging and other resolutions, byt he way!

    • drammapermusica

      It’ll be interesting to see how those in the audience who are mostly familiar with the story react to the opera. Britten’s librettist, Myfanwy Piper, has said that neither she nor the composer “ever intended to interpret the work, only to recreate it for another medium,” but that process of transference always involves a certain amount of interpretation (or reinterpretation). It would be hard to imagine how it wouldn’t.

      If you don’t know the opera, you’ll notice some striking differences between it and the story, but I think you’ll also pick up on some of the ambiguities from the original as well.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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