- Opera and the Novel: The Case of Henry James
As a former member of the Netherlands Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, and the Nuremberg Opera who has published in this journal and the collection Henry James on Stage and Screen, Michael Halliwell is especially well suited to discuss the surprising interest shown by composers of opera in James's works over the past sixty years. The first part of this interdisciplinary study provides a nuanced treatment of opera as a genre. The bulk is given over to a workman-like synopsis and often insightful analysis of eight James operas by seven composers.
Halliwell builds his bridge between opera and the novel by means of metaphrasis, defined in this context as "the process of translation of fiction into opera" (11), through which "even a hallowed verbal text is recomposed" (76). Drawing upon the secondary literature, Halliwell asserts that James's fiction lends itself to such recomposition because of its dialogic style and polyphonic structure (as described by Linda Boren), its inherent theatricality (discussed by Michael Eagan), and the division of narrative labor between scene and picture (explicated by Joseph Wiesenfarth). The last of these does the heavy lifting in terms of operatic adaptation. "One can draw the analogy," Halliwell argues, "between picture and the often subjective narratorial function of the [opera] orchestra—with its diegetic bias," while "the objective visual aspect of opera—with its mimetic bias" is "roughly analogous" to the Jamesian scene (110). The opera orchestra also provides "a means of access into the psyche of the operatic character" (109).
Particular attention is paid to the Jamesian narrator, a "complex . . . reflector figure" responsible for the "simultaneous meshing of the subjective viewpoint of the participating character with an objectivity in the way the scene is presented," and "in [End Page 299] opera," so Halliwell claims, "an analogous process is in operation, with subjectivity provided by the music complementing the objective physical representation" (109). Furthermore, "the music which constitutes the 'text' of the opera can be seen as another elaborate narratorial framing device—an 'imperfect telling'—another layer through which the meaning must be apprehended" (127). Halliwell also identifies melodrama as "fundamental" to James's attraction for "operatic adaptors" (92). While he acknowledges that, over time, "James's use of melodrama became increasingly understated," he maintains "it nevertheless remained intrinsic to [James's] method" (95). As a result, operatic adaptations of James gain in "interiority and apparent psychological depth" (114).
The operas examined are Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave; Douglas Moore's The Wings of the Dove; Thea Musgrave's The Voice of Ariadne, which plays fast and loose with "The Last of the Valerii"; Thomas Pasatieri's Washington Square; Donald Hollier's The Heiress, adapted from Washington Square; and two treatments of "The Aspern Papers"—one by Dominick Argento and another by Philip Hagemann. Halliwell's account of each is divided into three sections: the background of the story and its structure, a synopsis of the opera with analytic comments, and conclusions about the merits of each adaptation.
The following comments on the "metaphrastic" decisions made by Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper as they addressed the notorious matter of the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are representative.
At the beginning of Chapter 10 the governess discovers Flora, late one night, staring out of the window. [She] immediately jumps to the conclusion that Flora is "face to face with the apparition we had met at the lake" and, wishing to satisfy her own curiosity, goes to another room to look out. She sees Miles outside staring at something directly above her, at which point the chapter ends. . . . The librettist had the idea of actually staging what the governess in the tale merely imagines happens as a final ensemble. Quint appears on the tower and Miss Jessel by the lake, the scenes of their first appearances. Musically, it is a complex scene with Quint's melismatic vocal line gradually merging into a...