Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lost in My Labyrinth


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw. This was rough going, I'll admit. In his nerve-shredding adaptation of Henry James' consummate paranoid thriller, Britten didn't skimp on the dissonance or discomfort. Where James was subtle, even maddeningly indeterminate about the horrors afflicting this haunted house--an approach that naturally only tightens their grip on our imagination--Britten was frighteningly, disturbingly explicit. I'm not just talking about the blanks filled in by Myfanwy Piper's libretto, in which we see and hear the spectral molester Peter Quint quite clearly and hear unambiguously that he "made free with" the children and the previous governess. It's chiefly Britten's music that unsettles, with its queasy alternation between nauseated terror and feverish excitement; as with Peter Grimes, the subject of man-boy violation stirs his music to depths and heights it seldom reaches otherwise (for reasons that are as tragic and terrible as you can imagine).

But that intense engagement with the material is one reason I'd call this Britten's masterpiece, harsh edges and thoroughgoing perversity and all. The disorienting polytonality underpinning the chiming intervals of the main theme makes the whole thing feel a bit seasick, and even the score's bright major-key moments have a disquieting, jittery gait to them. Oddly or appropriately enough, this persistent skew is what makes the whole thing hang together. I saw a few Britten operas decades ago in L.A. (Midsummer and Albert Herring) but missed this one; the New York City Opera rendition is coming to BAM in a few weeks, and I'm a little scared to see it, frankly, not because I don't think it will live up to the recording's aural assault but because I fear that it will.

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