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BRITTEN: Owen Wingrave

spacer Hellekant, Barstow, Dawson, Gale; Finley, Hill, Marlton, Savidge; Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, Chamber of Westminster Cathedral Choir, Nagano. Arthaus Musik 100 373, 92 mins.


Although Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw is a frequent presence on the world's stages, Owen Wingrave,the second of his Henry James ghost-story adaptations, has seldom been seen since its original incarnation, a 1970 TV film. This 2011 opera-on-film remake suggests the reasons why. 

Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper lost much of the tone of James's short story, even though they hewed closely to his plot: Owen, the last in an aristocratic line of soldiers, declares his aversion to warfare, backs out of his military career and returns home to face the opprobrium of his family. His girlfriend, Kate Julian, accuses him of cowardice and goads him into spending the night in a haunted room in the gloomy family manse. In the morning, she discovers his lifeless body there, victim of an ancestral ghost. 

James tells the grim story from the bemused vantage point of Spencer Coyle, Owen's sympathetic instructor. Coyle sees the foibles of those around him; even Owen himself, for all his intelligence and moral fiber, is prone to the vanity and foolishness typical of a handsome young man of high birth. But no irony tempers Britten's opera. His Owen is a sobersided fellow indeed, delivering his views of warfare and bloodshed in high-minded speeches nowhere to be found in James, and obviously written to explicate the composer's own pacifism. A dark comedy of manners has become a sermon. As if to mock the opposing view, Britten and Piper give the whole central portion of the work — nearly a third of its ninety-minute length — over to the repetitive, strident scoldings of Owen's family. The dramatic inertia of this sequence is surprising to find in the work of a master of the operatic form. (Director Margaret Williams exacerbates the situation in her treatment, laying out the sequence largely in clumsy point-of-view closeups: the performers seem to be screaming at the camera.)

But Britten's considerable craft can be heard in his music. As in so much of his later work, lyrical effusion is held at bay for most of the work's length. The music proceeds sparely, even ascetically, until Owen's climactic Act II soliloquy, "Peace is not confused," in which finally something like full-scale operatic expression breaks forth. Conductor Kent Nagano realizes this aspect of the score superbly here, sustaining the tightly coiled musical tension and the mounting air of dread through even the most elliptical of Britten's musical gestures. 

The clumsiness of Williams's camera continuity aside, the video compels visual interest. The accomplished singers are, to a person, not only musically suited to their roles but thoroughly convincing as cinematic actors. Gerald Finley is Owen. In musical matters, his work, as might be expected, is beyond reproach, the tone solid from top to bottom, the text firmly bound to the musical line. But what truly distinguishes Finley's performance is his physical presence. He is well past military-school age here, to be sure. But he makes the character convincing through his dramatic alertness: behind his darting, perceptive eyes we sense a lively mind at work. 

Charlotte Hellekant, as Kate, is likewise palpably older than the character she plays, but her features register the girl's vindictive temper, along with the potential for womanly warmth that has drawn Owen to her in the first place. Martyn Hill, as Owen's grandfather Sir Philip, has the opposite problem: this is clearly a singer in his prime, made up to resemble a geriatric. But he nonetheless embodies the old man's intransigence. 

Peter Savidge is a compassionate Coyle, with just the right note of detachment; Anne Dawson has a face so sweet that she makes it seem like Mrs. Coyle herself — the warm-hearted "mother" of her husband's charges — has stepped off the page and onto the screen. Hilton Marlton conveys the complacent nature of Lechmere, Owen's school buddy, without a trace of caricature or condescension. Britten and Piper left out James's "back story" for Kate's impecunious mother, Mrs. Julian, but Elizabeth Gale's portrayal tells us all we need to know about the morally weak, horribly dependent woman. Most vivid of all is the veteran dramatic soprano Josephine Barstow, as Miss Wingrave, Owen's formidable aunt. It's a one-dimensional role, but through her implacable mien and the slashing impact of her declamation, Barstow makes that dimension truly terrifying. spacer


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