BRITTEN: Owen Wingrave, op. 85.
Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone, Owen Wingrave); Alan Opie (baritone, Spencer Coyle); James Gilchrist (tenor, Lechmere); Elizabeth Connell (soprano, Miss Wingrave); Janice Watson (soprano, Mrs. Coyle); Sara Fox (soprano, Mrs. Julian); Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo, Kate); Robin Leggate (tenor, General Wingrave, Narrator); Tiffin Boys' Choir, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox.
Chandos CHAN 10473 (2 discs) (F) (DDD) TT: 107:18.
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In 1967, BBC television commissioned an opera from Britten, who didn't even own a TV set at the time. Someone finally gave him given one for his sixtieth birthday in 1973. Nevertheless, the composer accepted the commission and reached back to the days of his opera, The Turn of the Screw, when he read another story by Henry James which he thought might make a good libretto. In 1968, Britten asked his then-regular librettist Myfawnwy Piper to turn the story into text. Due to a fire which destroyed Snape Maltings, the big concert hall of Britten's Aldeburgh Festival and the work of rebuilding, Britten finished the opera in 1970, rather longer than it took him to write just about anything. The work has since enjoyed stage productions. Of all of Britten's operas, this is the odd man out. Critics have seen it as a falling-off, from which Britten fortunately recovered just in time for Death in Venice. Some have gone so far as to regard it as self-parody, remarking on "unconvincing" borrowings from the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and the earlier The Turn of the Screw.

The immediate circumstance of the Viet Nam War impinges on the opera in that it likely impelled Britten, a pacifist, to turn to the story in the first place. The hero, of course, is yet another Britten outsider, like Billy Budd and Peter Grimes -- a figure on which Britten, as a homosexual in a legally-oppressive England, undoubtedly identified with. Owen Wingrave, a brilliant student from a family of soldiers and about to receive his commission, decides to turn his back on the family line of work. The family -- his grandfather, his aunt, and, most tellingly, his sweetheart, Kate -- tries to badger him into changing his mind. Owen remains firm, and finally his grandfather disinherits him. Owen seems relieved, rather than upset. However, he still loves Kate, who calls him a coward and dares him to sleep in a haunted room in the family house. Two Wingrave ancestors, father and son, died in that room. The father beat his son to death for cowardice and then died himself, "without a wound" on him. Owen not only accepts the dare but tells her to lock him in. This Kate does. When they unlock the room, Owen is dead.

I admit that the opera has its problems. For me, Britten had made his great pacifist statement in the War Requiem, and I'm not sure the story can support everything Britten wanted to project onto it. Owen has a long aria, a soliloquy in which he explains himself. It's meant to deepen the character but unfortunately comes across as preachy and sanctimonious, and the music fails to redeem the text. I'm not even sure it's necessary. Britten and Piper have heretofore done a great job showing Owen's character through his actions and through the reactions of others. Furthermore, the ghost business doesn't convince on a literal level, and in terms of audience time, Owen dies much too quickly, something that could have been covered by an orchestral interlude.

Those who think of opera as either an easy-listening jukebox or a competition among voice jocks to see who can belt out the highest C's should probably give Owen Wingrave a miss. You won't hear anything like a Puccini aria (or even an early Britten aria). You get instead drama, heightened by music, which is, after all, how Monteverdi defined opera in the first place. Britten works, for the most part, incredibly efficiently, without sacrificing musical imagination. The orchestration alone, based heavily on the Balinese gamelan, contributes to the charged atmosphere. The score typifies late Britten, a variety of sources -- folk tune, dodecaphony, and the aforementioned gamelan -- coming together in a highly potent mix. The scene where the Wingrave women gang up on Owen after his return to the family home is nothing short of brilliant. Britten also makes each character an individual, even while in a way working against himself, specifying scenes with three sopranos, for example. Yet each character remains musically distinct: Miss Wingrave a yapping harpy, Mrs. Julian hesitant and weepy, Mrs. Coyle quietly strong. Kate is a vivid creation, though not especially deep -- a hard-willed, right-thinking bitch, perfectly willing to break her fiancé for the sake of her pride, and yet carrying within her the seeds of remorse.

Some have said that the opera doesn't succeed because almost none of the characters arouses any sympathy. I think this more a fault of production rather than of the opera itself. True, the Wingraves, excepting Owen, are a bunch of monsters, but Owen's fidelity to them as well as his rebellion against them contains a great deal of psychological interest. Furthermore, the Coyles provide a humanizing lens. They are both military people themselves, and proud of it, and yet they respect Owen's decision and realize a great deal of courage was spent to make it.

I never heard the original Decca recording conducted by the composer (the great Janet Baker played Kate, reportedly with brilliance), but I can say that I definitely like Hickox and crew. Alan Opie as Coyle sings the best and provides much of the opera's warmth. James Gilchrist as Owen's schoolmate Lechmere conveys both the character's warm-heartedness and his youthful foolishness. Pamela Helen Stephen's Kate reveals the Good Girl with a will of pure iron forged by an inflexible code. I had problems with Peter Coleman-Wright's Owen, in that the voice seems too old for the part. His scenes with Opie sounded like arguments between two men of the same age. Nevertheless, Coleman-Wright never runs short of intelligent drama. At least he convinces you that the stakes are real. Hickox has mastered dramatic pace, and The City of London Sinfonia vividly realizes the colors and textures of Britten's score. In Chandos's better-than-natural sound, yet.

S.G.S. (August 2008)