Owen Wingrave Opera in two acts
[Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Henry Jamess short story; Revised orchestration by David Matthews]
Owen Wingrave Jacques Imbrailo
Spencer Coyle Steven Page
Lechmere Thomas Walker
Miss Wingrave Vivian Tierney
Mrs Coyle Elizabeth Woolett
Mrs Julian Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Kate Allison Cook
General Sir Philip Wingrave Richard Berkeley Steele
Narrator Toby Spence
Members of the City of London Sinfonia
Tim Hopkins Director & Set and film designs
Gideon Davey Costume designs
Wolfgang Goebbel Lighting
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 April, 2007
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Although it attracted much attention through its being designed as an opera written for television, “Owen Wingrave” has otherwise held an uncertain place in Britten’s canon since its appearance over 36 years ago. Such revivals as there have been have tended to it more as a transition away from the ‘church parables’ towards the outright re-engagement with opera of “Death in Venice”, than as a fully-fledged stage-work in its own right.
This new production at the Linbury Theatre does not solve all of the conundrums that are posed, and yet it does go much of the way towards realising the opera’s theatrical potency.
Much of the problem surrounding “Owen Wingrave” stems from the imbalance between its conceptual ambition and its musical limitations. Usually described as a ‘pacifist opera’, or at least the opera in which Britten’s anti-war convictions are most manifest, the work utilises the intricacy of Henry James’s short story (multi-layered even by his standards) to tackle the issues of family history and tradition, of familial ‘skeletons’ within that tradition, of generational conflict, and of the fundamental conflict between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that assumes dominance by the close. All this in a 105-minute opera unfolding (largely through the demands of television) as a sequence of relatively short scenes with minimal transition: conceptually, then, what might be a compromise between the Britten of the 1960s and that of the 1970s is actually one of the composer’s most inclusive works for the stage.
Musically, however, the opera is a good deal less convincing. The radical reappraisal of music-theatre represented by “Curlew River” had, over the course of the subsequent church parables, diffused into something far less focussed: “Owen Wingrave” is not ‘bad’ music per se – but its motivic stringency andinstrumental uniformity, allied to a tonal follow-through that frequently touches on cliché (indeed, the issue of whether Britten’s musical language is a reinvention of tonality or a personal gloss that more or less atrophies over the course of his maturity warrants considered investigation), heightens the stage drama less consistently than it might. What remains undoubted is the idiomatic nature of the vocal writing, steering the drama forward almost in spite of the music’s intrinsic unevenness.
And it is a measure of the effectiveness of Tim Hopkins’s production that it brings out the all-round conflict of the opera without coarsening or simplifying either characterisation or dramatic continuity. The starkly immediate props, the recourse to cinematic montage as a psychological amplification of events being enacted – notably the way the Wingrave gallery flashes past as though in the mind’s eye rather than in reality, the images of war whose implications are far greater than their emblematic representation might suggest, and the supernatural occurrences that necessarily draw attention to themselves: in such respects as these, Hopkins goes much of the way towards reclaiming the opera for the stage. He is fully abetted in this by Gideon Davey’s costumes – undemonstratively and yet meaningfully ‘in period’ – as also by Wolfgang Goebbel’s lighting; endowing the music with an expressive dimension that, when judged by its textures and sonorities alone, its soundworld too often lacks.
The cast, too, is a strong one. Jacques Imbrailo is the personification of the eponymous ‘hero’ whose rejection of his preordained career is but part of a finally doomed attempt to escape the clutches of his family past. Eloquent and impassioned, he sets forth his convictions in terms that amply vindicatehis actions – something that previous exponents of the role have not perhaps succeeded in so doing. Steven Page is the ideal complement as Coyle – another in the line of Britten roles who see both sides of the argument and, by doing so, transcend their own moral dilemma (think of Vere in “Billy Budd”). As his passages of dialogue with Owen in Act Two make plain, no-one is better placed to understand that strength of conviction is itself ‘courage’ of the highest order. As his spouse, Elizabeth Woolett has the requisite warmth and compassion – in marked contrast to the Wingrave household, in which Vivian Tierney is an inhibited and repressed Miss Wingrave, Jennifer Rhys-Davies a stricken and helpless Miss Julian, and Allison Cook a prim and unyielding Kate; too late aware that Owen’s stance embodies the heroism to which she herself aspires. Thomas Walker is a gauche, impulsive Lechmere – a soldier in appearance only, while Richard Berkeley-Steele ably puts across the crumbling authoritarianism of Philip Wingrave – his aggression masking an awareness of the family tragedy soon to be played out.
Rory Macdonald obtains an alert and incisive response from the City of London Sinfonia, heard here in a sensitive and idiomatic reduction of Britten’s original orchestration by David Matthews: one which aligns the work with the ‘chamber operas’ earlier in Britten’s career with which it demonstrably belongs. If, in the final analysis, the music of “Owen Wingrave” promises more than it delivers, its capacity as drama to provoke is no less than Britten can have intended – at least in so perceptive a production as this.