Owen Wingrave – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on the short story by Henry James
Owen Wingrave – Peter Coleman-Wright
Spencer Coyle – Alan Opie
Lechmere – James Gilchrist
Miss Wingrave – Elizabeth Connell
Mrs Coyle – Janice Watson
Mrs Julian – Sarah Fox
Kate – Pamela Helen Stephen
General Sir Philip Wingrave / Narrator – Robin Leggate
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
City of London Sinfonia
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: September 2008
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 10473 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes
This is only the second audio recording of Benjamin Britten’s 1969-1970 opera for television “Owen Wingrave”, the earlier one featuring the cast of the premiere under the composer’s baton. Although there have now been filmed performances of the opera, it is perhaps curious that there have been no actual television realisations since that of the 1971 premiere. There have though been several stagings – by Glyndebourne and by The Royal Opera House in the Linbury Studio.
This recording under Richard Hickox certainly makes a persuasive argument for the work and it is good to have another reading and in spacious sound. The City of London Sinfonia is captured with clarity and is on impressive form, all sections displaying great virtuosity and vitality. The militarism of past Wingraves echo throughout, particularly in the important sections involving piccolo and trombones, and the horn accompaniment and embodiment of Owen’s nature are all painted in sympathetically.
Hickox conducts a nicely moderated and nervy account of the score and the many changes of scene with their various short interludes demonstrate a gradual and subtle rising of tension through to the tragic conclusion. He is helped by a fine cast, all strong on diction and detailing with immediacy the many facets of their characters, attractive or unpleasant. The balance between voices and players is also very well managed.
Particularly terrifying is Elizabeth Connell’s Miss Wingrave – an absolute termagant of an aunt. She negotiates the tricky vocal lines superbly while getting all the words across with biting tone. It’s a marvellous performance. Alan Opie and Janice Watson are the Coyles: Opie makes the bluff tutor of the military academy appropriately baffled by Owen’s initial anti-war outbursts, while his later recognition of the underlying bravery of Owen’s stance is convincing; Watson, in wonderfully warm voice, is his compassionate wife, her asides of distaste at the family’s behaviour made fully understandable.
James Gilchrist is luxury casting for the vacuous Lechmere on whom he lavishes his beautiful tenor, and Robin Leggate really sings General Wingrave, giving his words a slightly clipped delivery that underlies the generational difference. He’s also very effective in his delivery of the off-stage ballad in his capacity as the narrator – another section of the score perfectly judged by the recording.
Peter Coleman-Wright is good in the title-role too, capturing Owen’s increasingly determined stance against the demands of his ancestry and his family’s pride. That his strength and resolve are what they are is certainly part of his genetic (military) make-up. Perhaps in terms of vocal tone quality or timbre he sounds a little too mature for Owen – but then that is also a charge that can be levelled at Benjamin Luxon on the composer’s own recording.
Sarah Fox also suffers slightly from the same affliction, but in reverse, in that her vocal quality is rather too youthful for the status-seeking Mrs Julian desperate for her daughter to make a good match by marrying into the Wingrave family and thus retain her connections with the family and their estate. It’s no surprise that she should have brought up a daughter such as the heartless and unsympathetic Kate, here sung by Pamela Helen Stephen, who just about manages to make the motivations of this foolish girl credible.
This release reminds one of the unjust neglect of Britten’s score. But given the strong anti-war and anti-militarism sentiment present today, perhaps its time has finally come.