Haunting: ENO revive 'The Turn of the Screw'

A revival of Benjamin Britten's spine-chilling adaptation of Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw', by English National Opera, opens next week. Jessica Duchen is haunted by the power of ghost stories set to music

Hallowe'en is about to arrive early in the opera world: next week English National Opera opens its revival of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, a taut and terrifying masterpiece based on Henry James's enigmatic ghost story.

A governess arrives to take on the care of a young brother and sister, only to find the pair possessed by the spirits of two mysterious characters, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. These individuals' precise involvement with the youngsters is never revealed, but it is clear that they have destroyed the children's innocence; ultimately their haunting leaves the boy dead. With Britten's contribution, James's story may have won double its fame, for nothing enhances a tale of the supernatural as well as music to match it.



Ghost stories work on us in a very similar way to music. The best ones achieve their power via potent archetypal images that target our subconscious, making it face its own buried fears and urges. Music too has the exceptional power to bypass conscious thought and appeal straight to the emotions and the subconscious; moreover it can stimulate the listener to imagine vivid inner worlds in response, unfettered by the boundaries of reality.



Composers have been exploiting this natural partnership ever since the vogue for the ghoulish began in the 19th century. Indeed, operatic history is laced with supernatural goings-on that would have had Hollywood rubbing its hands in glee had it existed around 1830. Mozart was ahead of his time when he included the original and most icy of operatic ghosts in Don Giovanni (1787): the Commendatore who drags the antihero away to hell. But once the influence of the German romantic poets, especially Goethe, began to filter through, along with the romantic sagas of Sir Walter Scott, a flood of supernatural stories was quick to reach the stage.



Such tales provided composers with a fresh challenge: to create sonic atmospheres that oozed mystery and inspired fear; characters neither human nor mythically godly but altogether more sinister; and settings that pitted humans against forces of unearthly power. As early as 1815, the 18-year-old Schubert composed his song "Erlkönig" on a poem by Goethe, condensing the essence of music's affinity with the supernatural. Just a few minutes long, it's effectively a mini-opera in which the singer plays three roles: a father, a feverish child, and the demon-like Erlkönig who gradually coaxes out the child's soul, while pounding octaves in the piano convey the father's desperate horseback ride through the night.



Presenting ghostly dramas on stage was the obvious next step for any composer with an appetite for ticket sales. Among the first, and best, was Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz (1821) in which the Devil is summoned in one of the most terrifying scenes in all opera. Yet apart from this, most of the early ghost-story successes are little heard now: Francois-Adrien Boieldieu's La Dame Blanche (1825), based on several works of Sir Walter Scott, was highly influential; Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (first performed in Paris in 1831), featuring the raising from the dead of a group of nuns, was so popular that it became part of the mid-19th-century zeitgeist; and Heinrich Marschner's Der Vampyr (1828) was a massive hit that predated Bram Stoker's Dracula by 69 years. While these operas receive occasional airings – Der Vampyr was adapted and updated for television in 1992 – they're now remembered mainly for their importance in inspiring greater works that followed – most of all, Wagner.



Wagner's first masterpiece, Der fliegende Holländer (premiered in 1843), is the ultimate operatic ghost-story, and proves exactly why music is the natural home of the supernatural. The Dutchman travels the world on a ghost ship, under a demoniac curse; a young girl drowns herself for love, setting his soul free. The human world meets the supernatural head on – and to effect this, Wagner conjures two different musical worlds: for the supernatural, he unleashes the most destabilising chromatic harmonies and turbulent orchestration that he had yet devised, forming an aural sphere that is supple, seductive and overpowering beside the deliberate, plonking ordinariness of the everyday. The two forces collide, with a human ship's crew singing a sea shanty in jaunty duple time while the ghost ship's inhabitants retaliate in triple time from their own chilling soundworld, everything working simultaneously upon the audience's ears and minds.



Into the 20th century, music and the supernatural headed in more obscure directions, first into the realms of Symbolism – Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle (premiered 1918) is a devastating drawing-together of fearsome legend and psychological depth; and Korngold's Die tote Stadt (1920) is based on a Symbolist novella by Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte, in which the "dead city" of Bruges represents the ghostly dead wife.



Today, music and spectres again walk hand in hand through the opera house, John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) is set in the afterlife court of Louis XVI, where a Beaumarchais play is performed to entertain the ghost of Marie Antoinette. Still, the Met in New York has staged Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor as a Victorian ghost story, and, as recently as two weeks ago, a new ghost-story opera was premiered in Cornwall: The Hanging Oak by Paul Drayton, with a haunted archdeacon as its principal character.



The Turn of the Screw remains probably the most spine-chilling of all. It tells James's tale of unacknowledged desires and hinted paedophilia sparsely, letting the raw horror in the bones of the narrative shine through the dark. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned," cry Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; and the fearsome power of that phrase is enhanced by the fact that it appeals to our subconscious alone: we never learn precisely what it means – just as the invisibility of music increases its power far beyond the tangible. When story, stage and sound combine with matching force, there is nothing more powerful. I'd suggest it's time to jettison any cinema outing for Hallowe'en and head instead for the opera.





'The Turn of the Screw' opens at the London Coliseum on 22 October (www.eno.org; 0871 911 0200)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence