Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera is an impassioned plea for the right of the individual to make a choice when it comes to killing or being killed. In a world where it seems every death of a soldier in action is subject to a public enquiry, it raises the question of whether not joining the army and going to war in the first place would be a sensible preventative measure. It’s not a matter of self-interest though but of what is the right thing to do when war is a personal reality, something Britten knew about only too well.
In addition to working out some of Britten’s own feelings about being a conscientious objector, the opera continues his exploration of the difficulty of the individual to truly be himself in a hostile and unforgiving society, a theme that runs through his works. The conflicts could apply to the composer’s sexuality, as much as his heartfelt desire to avoid participating in worldwide struggles that devastated more than one generation during the 20th century.
First broadcast in 1971, Owen Wingrave was conceived as a television opera, part of the reason it has been performed so seldom on stage. Its first production was a claustrophic, if rather studio-bound, affair, supervised by the composer himself and boasting the talents of Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Benjamin Luxon. Much later came the equally effective filmed version, featuring Gerald Finley, updated and with the action opened out.
As well as being a moral and philosophical work, Owen Wingrave veers off in the direction of a ghost story, based as it is on a Henry James novella and reminiscent of Britten’s earlier The Turn of the Screw. This is something of a weakness, with the dramatic structure rambling and the moral arguments superceded in the second act by the sub-plot about ancestral murderers and victims.
Tim Hopkins‘ beautiful production makes a number of references to the opera’s original medium, from the overall monochrome look to the screen-like inner stage, the appearance of technicians to adjust cameras and the frequent use of projections. The sets which, along with the film designs are also the work of Hopkins, are strikingly realised, although they do not perhaps quite evoke the atmosphere of the creepy old house.
Hopkins manages to minimise the two-dimensional nature of the Addams Family-like Wingrave clan and the horrendous relatives are played by a distinguished cast, which includes Vivian Tierney as Miss Wingrave and Richard Berkeley-Steele as the tyrannical military patriarch, with a semblance of sympathy and a sense of reality.
Despite an unnerving resemblance to Michael Portillo, there is a very sympathetic and strongly sung performance by Steven Page as the upright and principled Spencer Coyle. Jacques Imbrailo is excellent as Owen and particularly impressive in his passionate outburst towards the end of the opera. The lovely ballad that prologues the second act is sung elegantly by a taped Toby Spence.
After the very real dangers that the protagonist has to overcome, sleeping in the haunted room always seems rather feeble. If the drama falters towards the end, the problem lies with the writing rather than the production, and Hopkins’ imaginative final touch doesn’t quite convince as a solution to the inherent weaknesses.
Nevertheless, this is a thrilling evening, superbly played out and a rare chance to hear live one of Britten’s neglected near-masterpieces.
The chamber arrangement by David Matthews brings out the considerable beauty and drama of Britten’s score and the players of the City of London Sinfonia, an orchestra a third of the size intended by the composer, is beautifully conducted by Rory Macdonald.