Ramgobin as Britten’s Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh
© Robert Workman 2014
First shown on BBC Television in 1971, Owen Wingrave — which, like Britten's earlier opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), has a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on a story by Henry James — remains among Britten's least regularly produced operas, within his native country and elsewhere. At this year's Aldeburgh Festival, however — the sixty- seventh edition of an event the composer cofounded back in 1948 — Owen Wingrave formed the opening gesture in a production at Snape Maltings (seen June 15) by theater director Neil Bartlett, who has shown a strong and ongoing fascination with Britten's work.
The Maltings — an 832-seat concert hall that is the festival's main venue — is not a true opera house, though a pit can be created below and in front of the concert platform itself. Stage facilities were severely limited, in this production as in others presented there; it will be for the festival's incoming chief executive, Roger Wright, who arrives in September with an exemplary track record from BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, to solve that problem.
What was more regrettable than the necessarily limited staging was the fact that the opera was performed in a reduced orchestration (albeit a very skillful one) by composer David Matthews, himself a long-term Britten associate and an expert on the composer's music. At a festival that was founded by Britten and is still very much associated with the promulgation of his works, this seemed a regrettable decision. In particular, Britten's lavish use of tuned percussion for Owen's paean to peace in Act II was musically undermined by the use of smaller forces, though in general terms the Britten–Pears Orchestra, an ensemble made up of young professional musicians, played exceptionally well for conductor Mark Wigglesworth.
Designed by Simon Daw (sets) and Sue Willmington (costumes), Bartlett's staging maintained the opera in period — the late nineteenth century — but with a group of extras representing modern soldiers providing a strong and occasionally menacing military background and at times even intervening in the action. (Their movement was directed by Struan Leslie.) For instance, in collaboration with a group of choristers from Chelmsford Cathedral — who, together with tenor James Way as the Narrator (here called the "Ballad Singer"), voiced the "Ballad of the Wingraves" — they reenacted in multiplied form the death of an earlier scion of the family at the hands of his father, who was ashamed of his own son's unwillingness to fight.
A problem often identified with the piece was again evident on this occasion. Britten was a lifelong pacifist who, following his return from the U.S. to the U.K. in 1942, faced interrogation by a tribunal for the registration of conscientious objectors. This may well have left a mark. Wider resentment that Britten and his life partner, Peter Pears, did not fight during the conflict that was then threatening their country lingered long — even within the musical community of which they formed such a significant part. Having composed the War Requiem as an antiwar statement in 1962, Britten went on to make similar sentiments the subject of an opera that, as commissioned for television, had the potential to reach the largest audience of any of his works.
Unfortunately, he allowed opponents of pacifism no intelligent voice in the opera. Owen's family, as personified by his aunt, Miss Wingrave (fearsomely sung on this occasion by dramatic soprano Susan Bullock), and his grandfather, Sir Philip (vividly personified by tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele), are essentially shrieking heads. The less purely venomous Mrs. Julian (attentively voiced by Janis Kelly) and her heartless daughter Kate (winningly presented, despite her unsympathetic character, by mezzo Catherine Backhouse) seemed malign and irascible. Ironically, Britten seems to have weakened rather than strengthened his moral case by treating his antagonists as one-dimensional caricatures.
A second fault, and perhaps ultimately a more grievous one, is that the score, in places, seems less inspired than one would expect of England's greatest opera composer; there are highlights, to be sure, but there are also passages that seem to drift dangerously toward the arid and the unlovely. Even a worthy production with a generally impressive cast, as here, could not entirely rescue it. Baritone Ross Ramgobin nevertheless made a suitably sensitive and determined Owen, Isaiah Bell an appropriately feckless and foolish Lechmere, and veteran Jonathan Summers a noble and moving Spencer Coyle, with Samantha Crawford lyrically likable as his gentle helpmeet.
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