Benjamin Britten's women

Ask any opera buff who sung the roles of Quint and Miles in the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw in Venice in 1954, and they will have no problem answering Peter Pears and David Hemmings. But ask them who took the pivotal role of the Governess and they will probably struggle for the answer.

Glyndebourne Opera’s new touring production of The Turn of the Screw left me musing on the conundrum of gender in Britten’s operas. So often the male leads in today's Britten productions seem to be singing someone else’s role. It is hardly surprising, as we are familiar with the original casts through the astonishingly good recordings made with the composer himself conducting, and Pears, Hemmings and other artists singing the roles Britten wrote for them. But although the women in these recordings often reflect the first performance casting, posterity hasn’t been so kind to the sopranos.

The Governess at the Teatro La Fenice in 1954 was Jennifer Vyvyan, and she is seen in my header photograph trying to connect with Quint, sung of course by Pears. Britten also created the roles of Lady Rich in Gloriana, Tytania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave for Jennifer Vyvyan. So it was quite remarkable that in Glyndebourne’s new Turn of the Screw the startling new soprano Kate Royal (who I wrote about back in July 2005) made the female lead her own, and scored a real home run for gender equality with a performance which put the Governess firmly at the center of the plot. Watch out for Kate Royal (above), she is a real star in the making.

The gender bias in Britten’s operas is reflected in their critical treatment, with the male roles consistently in the spotlight. Following the premiere of Turn of the Screw Antoine Golea wrote in L’Express of Britten’s ‘intense preoccupation with homosexual love and the futility of struggling against it’, while predictably Virgil Thomson in the New York Herald Tribune described David Hemmings as ‘adorable all round’.

This bias does Britten an injustice as he wrote superb roles for his ‘house’ sopranos. As well as Jennifer Vyvyan, the British singer Joan Cross had roles created for her, including Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw, Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, Lady Billows in Albert Herring, and Elizabeth lst in Gloriana (below). Unfortunately she retired before Britten committed the operas to disc, the exception being a 1955 mono Turn of the Screw. Cross had a close working relationship with Britten, lived in Aldeburgh after her 1955 retirement, and is buried in same churchyard in the town as Britten and Pears. Britten also worked closely with women who were not singers. In 1952 Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav Holst, joined the staff at Aldeburgh to work on Gloriana, and she was an artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1956 to 1977, and continued to live in Aldeburgh until her death in 1984. A portrait of her by Mary Potter hangs in the Snape foyer.

John Bridcut’s recent book Britten’s Children has justifiably enjoyed considerable success. Perhaps someone will now recognise the brave new world of gender equality by writing Britten’s Women?

* To keep things equal the other members of the excellent cast for Glyndebourne’s Turn of the Screw were Daniel Norman as Prologue/Peter Quint, Joanna Songi as Flora, Christopher Sladdin as Miles, Anne-Marie Owens as Mrs Grose, and Rachel Cobb as Miss Jessel. The conductor of a fine musical evening was Edward Gardner, and the director of a production that could have turned a little less was Jonathan Kent.

For more on gender bias take An Overgrown Path to BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine

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Civic Center said…
And let's not forget that Britten in the "War Requiem" wrote the greatest all-out Russian Soprano lording-it-over-monster-chorus moments in musical history. Praise be Galina and all her successors from all over the world.

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