The Turn of the Screw Opera Synopsis

The Story of Benjamin Britten's 2 Act Opera

The Turn of the Screw Benjamin Britten
New York City Opera presents Benjamin Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw' at BAM Opera House in Brooklyn on Friday, February 22, 2013.The opera was directed by Sam Buntrock. In this picture is Jennifer Goode Coope. Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw premiered on September 15, 1954, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy. The story takes place in the mid-19th-century English country home, Bly and is based on the novella by ​Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Here is a synopsis of the opera.

The Turn of the Screw, Prologue

A male tenor, aptly named Prologue, sings about a young woman he once knew. She took care of two small children in the Bly House, an English countryside home after being hired by the children’s guardian and uncle.  Too busy to care for them on his own, he gave her three rules she must follow: never write to him about the children, never ask about the family’s history, and never to abandon the children.

The Turn of the Screw, Act 1

The Governess enters the Bly House and is greeted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the two children, Miles and Flora. The Governess bends down to tell the young boy hello and is taken aback when she makes eye contact with him. She experiences a peculiar feeling of being connected to him somehow. Mrs. Grose promptly shuffles the Governess around and takes her on a tour of the grounds. The Governess becomes much more at ease and becomes less apprehensive about her new position. When they return to the house, the Governess receives a letter from Miles’ school telling her that he has been expelled. Without giving a reason as to why the Governess is unable to determine what actions a sweet little boy would take to warrant expulsion. Mrs. Grose persuades her to disregard the letter.

The following morning, the Governess wakes up feeling delighted about her job, the children, and the Bly House. She nearly forgets about the footsteps and crying she heard outside her door during the night. As she recalls the slightly disturbing occurrence, she peers out of her window and spots a man sitting on one of the home’s towers. Suddenly disappearing, the Governess becomes terribly frightened. Moments later, the children take occupancy in a nearby room, laughing and singing nursery rhymes, and the Governess calms down, passing off the anomaly as an illusion. As the day progresses, the Governess sees the same man looking through a nearby window. In order to assuage her fears, she approaches Mrs. Grose and tells her what she has seen. Mrs. Grose tells the Governess that the man she has described was one of the former menservants that worked in the Bly House. She indirectly states that he, Peter Quint, may have been a pedophile, and he was having an affair with the former Governess, Miss Jessel. She says that Miss Jessel may have been inappropriately close with the children, too. Mrs. Grose never did speak out because she was afraid Mr. Quint. She tells the Governess that Miss Jessel moved away and died and Mr. Quint died in a car accident on an icy road near the house just after Miss Jessel passed. Shuddering to think of such awful events, the Governess takes a vow to herself that she will protect the children.

The next day, the Governess and Miles sit at a table as she tutors him in Latin. Out of nowhere, he begins singing a song as if he were in a trance. Later in the afternoon, while sitting next to Flora at the edge of the lake, she asks her to recite all of the world’s seas. Flora does so but eerily ends with the Dead Sea. She then begins comparing the Bly House to the Dead Sea, which unnerves the Governess. Suddenly the appearance of a woman on the other side of the lake frightens the Governess - even more so when she discovers it is a ghost. When the ghost, who must be Miss Jessel, begins coming towards them, the Governess takes Flora by the hand and rushes her back to their home.

Late into the night, Miles and Flora sneak out of the house and make their way into the woods. They meet with the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. Meanwhile, the Governess and Mrs. Grose discover the children are missing and rush out of the house to find them. When they get to the woods they find the two spirits trying to take possession of the children’s bodies. The women chase the spirits away, and Miles creepily sings about being a bad boy.

The Turn of the Screw, Act 2

Inside the Bly House, the two spirits reappear and argue about not possessing the children quickly enough, while the Governess sits alone fearful of the evil she feels has arrived. The next morning, she takes the children and Mrs. Grose to church. The children sing along to a lovely psalm, and Mrs. Grose reassures the Governess that nothing can be wrong if the children are as sweet as this. But the Governess feels differently. She tells Mrs. Grose of Miles’ weird trance-like song and Flora’s odd conversation about the Dead Sea. Mrs. Grose is shocked and tells her she must inform the children’s uncle. The Governess is tormented because of his strict rule of not contacting him about the children. She initially decides against it. However, when Miles mentions the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Mr. Quint, she thinks to herself that it would be better for her to leave.

When they return home, the Governess enters the children’s school room to gather some of her things. Miss Jessel appears sitting in the teacher’s chair and sings a song about her cruel fate. The Governess takes action and approaches the spirit. Before she can say a word, the ghost vanishes. This mundane encounter sparks confidence in the Governess and she resolves herself to stay. She writes a letter to the uncle asking him to meet with her. Later, after the sun sets, the Governess passes by Miles and tells him that she has written to his uncle, telling him about the ghosts. After she leaves, Mr. Quint calls out to him and tells him to steal the letter. Miles complies. He quickly finds the letter and takes it to his room.

In the morning, the Governess and Mrs. Grose watch Miles perform a few piano pieces. Flora takes the opportunity to meet Miss Jessel at the lake and slips out of the house mid-performance. When the Governess and Mrs. Grose realize Flora is missing, the begin searching for her. Finally, they find her at the lakefront. The Governess sees Miss Jessel nearby, but Mrs. Grose does not see her. Flustered, the Governess demands that Flora tells the truth and admit to seeing the ghost. Flora shouts a few curse words at her and denies the ghost exists. Mrs. Grose has enough and believes that the Governess is not in her right mind. She takes Flora back home, leaving the Governess behind.

Later that evening, Mrs. Grose hears Flora talking wildly about the atrocities she has committed. She agrees with the Governess that something must be done. They decide it would be best if Mrs. Grose takes her away from the Bly House. The Governess then wonders why she hasn’t heard back from the uncle. Mrs. Grose tells her it is because the letter she wrote was never delivered. In fact, it was likely Miles’ doing. The Governess goes to Miles’ room and speaks with him alone. As she questions him about the letter, Mr. Quint tells him not to tell. Conflicted, Miles cannot take it anymore and tells the Governess that he took the letter and hid it. Wanting to know who put him up to the task, Miles cries out Mr. Quint’s name. Immediately, the ghost vanishes and Miles falls lifelessly to the floor. The Governess holds his body in her arms, weeping and wondering if she has done the right thing.

More Famous Opera Synopses

The Flying Dutchman by Wagner
Faust by Gounod
Peter Grimes by Britten
La Boheme by Puccini
Manon by Massenet