“This score is my bible,” David Schiff, the Portland composer of the chamber opera Gimpel the Fool and a lot of other good music, said with a big smile.
It was Friday night, and I’d run into Schiff as I was leaving the opening performance of Benjamin Britten‘s The Turn of the Screw at Portland Opera. Schiff loves Britten for several reasons, but in this case he was thinking of Britten as a shining example of how to orchestrate an opera for only a dozen instruments and have it sound full and brilliant and just right. He didn’t use the word “busy” about Britten’s score, but he talked about its muscularity, the way Britten used his limited number of instruments to maximum effect, stretching their sound and matching the dramatic texture of Myfanwy Piper‘s libretto, which is based on Henry James‘s mystifyingly open-ended ghost novella.
I’d been thinking about the opera’s orchestration because the topic came up in the pre-performance talk by Bob Kingston, who also writes the interesting blog dramma per musica. That got me to listening particularly closely to the orchestra, which was conducted with admirable precision by Christopher Larkin, and to noticing how well Britten combined tautness and lushness to bring out the strange, screw-tightening tensions of James’s tale.