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place and missing wholly, though it now, to my sense, filled the room like the taste of poison, the wide overwhelming presence. ‘It’s he?’ I was so determined to have all my proof that I dashed into the ice to challenge him. ‘Whom do you mean by “he”?’ ‘Peter Quint – you devil!’ His face gave again round the room, its convulsed supplication. ‘Where?’ Who is the devil? Quint or the Governess? In the opera the director has to answer these questions because the music is more explicit than James’s words – it supplies intonation, the lack of which in writing is so brilliantly exploited by James. Here is the equivalent passage in the libretto: miles Is he there, is he there? governess Is who there, Miles? Say it! quint Don’t betray us Miles! miles Nobody, nothing. governess Who? Who? Who made you take the letter? Who do you wait for, watch for? Only say the name and he will go for ever, for ever. quint On the banks, by the walls, remember Quint. At the window, on the tower, when the candle is out, remember Quint. He leads, he watches, he waits, he waits. miles Peter Quint, you devil. (He runs into the Governess’s arms) The switch in Miles’s question from ‘Is she there?’ to the more open ‘Is he there?’ shows how Piper and Britten felt they had to opt for the explicit where James had cherished ambiguity. They also opted for visible ghosts and made a wonderfully alluring creature out of Quint in particular. The audience finds itself invited to believe in the ghosts because it sees them. Kurosawa in Rashomon, the film about the young couple who are attacked by a bandit while travelling through a wood, exploits our willingness to believe what we see. The film tells the story of the same rape and murder four times, each time through the eyes of a different person: the murdered man, the wife, the bandit, and a peasant who was hiding in a bush and saw everything. The three actors play out the scene in four wildly different ways, and, because you see what happens, each time you find it hard to remember you are seeing just a version of the story enacted. You believe each account as it unrolls before you. You have to pinch yourself each time to remember you are only seeing one person’s


Mona Lisa (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) Louvre, Paris © Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library

view of what happened. Britten and Piper, operating in a visual medium, lack James’s power on the printed page to hint and to obfuscate. They often make specific what James deliberately left obscure. They bring the ghosts out onto the stage and make them speak, though only to each other and to the children; in the scene in the schoolroom Miss Jessel talks to herself as much as to the Governess. They have one resource, however, which was denied the novelist. Britten’s music suggests a troubled brooding world, a Bly which is inhabited by ghosts even before one steps onto that crenellated tower. James was familiar with the work of the Society for Psychical Research: both his father and brother were members. Britten had his own agenda: he knew what the story meant for him and presented his view with the extraordinary means at his disposal. He said that a chamber opera was best adapted for the expression of intimate feelings. The strength of the musical presentation of those feelings, the evocation of mounting tension as the horrible story unfolds, compensates for the loss of James’s astonishing ability to seem to be saying one thing one moment and denying it the next. Michael Fontes

Grange Park Opera 2002 Programme  

Grange Park Opera 2002 Programme