“It was a challenge”, says the Governess when she learns that the children have all along been enjoying in secret that very liaison with evil spirits from which she has tried to protect them. This might equally apply to the whole opera.
Confronted with a story which unfolds in a series of suggestions so delicate that the reader cannot tell whether the manifestations are actual or the Governess’s hallucination: confronted with a libretto that naturally fails to catch the intangible sense of evil that should infuse the story; confronted with a plot that requires two children as protagonists; the composer is certainly faced with a challenge.
It seems to be Britten’s hobby to accept challenges. One can call to mind so many daring experiments that have been successful, so many ill-suited words or phrases that he has set so discreetly that neither singer nor listener are embarrassed. And now he has again surpassed himself with music that (though unmelodious) redeems most of the infelicities of the opera. Long may he continue! For, all being well, he has another forty years to emulate in age the grand old men of our musical horizon whom he has already out-shone in talent.
The production this week at the Arts Theatre was beautifully contrived, and the singing and characterisation excellent. Miles and Flora, the two children (David Hemmings and Olive Dyer) were entirely convincing even in their agonised moments of evil possession struggling with conscience. The boy was particularly expressive. Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess, the mainstay of the opera, held our sympathy throughout. Her part was so sensitively rendered, that it never occurred to one to think she was unfit to be in charge of children, as might have been the case. Her agitations never seemed excessive, and her repose was impeccable. Joan Cross as the Housekeeper managed in some subtle way to suggest the requisite muddled beneficence. Arda Mandikian as the dead Miss Jessel looked ghostly enough, but her words were evanescent, as if her teeth and lips had somehow passed prematurely beyond Purgatory, leaving their owner past communication save by table-tapping.
The vocal honours of the evening must go to Peter Pears as the dead Peter Quint, and also the Prologue. As Peter Quint, his vocalisation was a tour de force in beauty of tone, clarity of words, and excellence of control.
If there were any faults in this opera, they lay in the libretto. There were indeed moments when I did not feel at home, and the fact that they were only sporadic moments means that at other times the action was realistic and credible. For the most part it was an extremely exciting evening.
My particular dissatisfaction was with the ghosts; not that they were unghostly or too lovable in appearance. In everything they were adequately evil save in their utterances.
The trouble with representing evil on stage, is that the more clearly it is detailed the less horrifying it becomes. An unknown evil is more ghastly. So when one learnt that Miles was expelled from school for something specified no more exactly than an “injury” to his fellows, one accepted the ambiguity. It was clear that the boy on stage could not have been engaged in the rough mis-diversions of Tom Brown’s Schooldays—his long hair would have made him vulnerable for a start. Obviously it was some appalling moral offence. In this the influence of this relationship with Quint was manifest and disturbing, as long as we did not get a close-up of Quint actually seducing the child. Alas, we did.
Quint became very exact; he told bed-time stories, and offered adventures and rewards, and was no worse an influence than any governess or baby-sitter. The Boyhood of Raleigh is more vigorous.
Even when we came to Miles’s theft of the letter and his refusal to confess, it was presented as the first peccadillo of a boy hitherto innocent. One began to doubt the enormity that had caused his expulsion from school.
But the final blow was to learn in their “Colloquy” that Quint and Miss Jessel in their loneliness in the abyss were merely seeking friendship. What could be more natural and unmalicious?
Now we all know that there are Demons and Beings that haunt the earth hankering after they know not what. And that is the horror of it. Nobody knows what these spirits desire. Nor is it a pleasant experience to suffer or witness a demonic possession. It does not necessarily consist in bedtime stories or manifestations of a ghost’s life-time image, but the insidious infiltration of personality upon a victim usually only half aware of it. Between living persons we can see this and it is subject to control. We call it education, upbringing, or conversion.
Britten’s music makes it clear that he is experienced enough to know about this and to express the terror of the mystery. But Myfanwy Piper’s libretto is here as innocent as a dove, and as ineffective. We are to believe the children subtly undermined, but we hear and see no such thing, and the children (ridiculously enough) seem uncontaminated in the absence of the ghosts.
Apart from snatches of ballad, the music avoids anything like an extended melody, though I several times expected one. Britten’s mastery of continuity prevented me from being as infuriated as Jehovah was at Onan. The turning of the screw was represented by a theme or figure comprised of rising fourths, first heard at the end of the Prologue. This received multifarious variation in a series of interludes, embellished by orchestration as ravishing as ever.