Great Britten!

I thought that one up myself, but that probably won’t hold up in court—it’s no doubt been used before, and as puns go, it’s pretty bad. Yes, pun: there’s a Brittish…errr, a British composer named Benjamin Britten who has been stirring things up around here lately. Indirectly, at least—he died in 1976, but not before writing a lot of really great stuff, and a surprising amount of it is currently being shown off locally.

Big—To Say Nothing of Great—Britten
The biggest Britten item on the local horizon is probably his 1954 opera, The Turn of the Screw, a ghost-story opera that the Dallas Opera is mounting a little later this month. It’s based on the Henry James ghost story about an inexperienced governess in Victorian England who takes up the care of a couple of British kids (parents deceased) because their uncle can’t be bothered with them. Apparently, there was some nasty business in their past involving a former governess, Miss Jessel, and a former manservant, Peter Quint. We’re not told much about what happened, but word has it that James’ Victorian readers would have understood quite well what had gone on, and that it was very nasty business, indeed.

Jessel and Quint are former because they are, as they say, no longer with us. That’s not because they were fired, although all indications are that they should have been. They’re now employed as ghosts, and their main task seems to be deviling the kids, Miles and Flora, as well as the governess and the house worker, Mrs. Grose. These ladies do their best to defend the kids, but that ain’t enough, it seems. 

Britten’s version of this popular story qualifies as a chamber opera, a genre that the composer pretty much invented—it involves just a few people in the cast, a small orchestra, and it’s of modest duration, shall we say. If you’d like something to help you get your bearings, there’s a fantastic film of the opera and a few recordings; Dallas’s production will be different from any of these, I’m sure, but don’t look on that as a problem. The library also has the opera’s musical score in a couple of different formats.

There’s also Henry James’ original; there’s Myfanwy Piper’s libretto for the opera as well as William Archibald’s script for a play based on the story, a script that predates Britten’s opera.  It’s called The Innocents, and there’s a really sharp film (from 1961) based on the play and starring Deborah Kerr as the governess. Our copy of this movie is a Criterion Edition DVD that’s absolutely stunning; and there are some other video adaptations, as well. Each of these versions differs from the opera in some details, but they won’t be all that different from Britten’s take on it.

More—and Just As Great—Britten
Some of Britten’s other music (and there’s quite a bit) was dazzlingly represented locally just a week or so ago by the Dallas Symphony and violin phenom Vilde Frang playing Britten’s Violin Concerto, the most gorgeous punch in the stomach I’ve ever experienced. We’ll have a recording of her playing it soon, mark my words.

Furthermore, the Mu Phi Epsilon Sunday Concert Series features SMU’s Resident Ensemble, the Cezanne Quartet, playing Britten’s First String Quartet, and that happens this Sunday, as in 3/5/2017, here at the Central Library. Sorry for the short notice, but this Britten guy is just all over the place, and he’s worth the attention.

Disagree? Go Argue With Science
Word has it that Albert Einstein was on hand for an early performance of some of Britten’s music, and said something (in public, yet) to the effect that “the kid has talent.” But don’t take his word for it, or mine: go watch the fantastic Tony Palmer documentary on Britten’s life (who’s Tony Palmer, you ask? That’s a subject for a later post). Or read Britten’s (recent!) biography. Read his letters, even.

But time’s short. The Dallas Opera’s Turn of the Screw starts in less than two weeks. The Cezanne Quartet is playing this Sunday (and that concert is free). So clear your calendar, have somebody hold all your calls for the next couple of months—I’m sure there’s more Britten out there, just you wait—and I’ll see you at the Winspear Opera House. Or the Library. Or both.

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