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CLASSICAL  October 2008

CLASSICAL October 2008

Subject:

Owen Wingrave

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 12 Oct 2008 16:42:55 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Benjamin 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)  Total time: 107:18

Summary for the Busy Executive: High-class agitprop.

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 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 fiance
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.

Steve Schwartz

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