Indeed, the protection of innocence and the condemnation of cruelty runs through nearly all Britten’s work, powerfully informing his whole creative persona. Owen Wingrave is critical to any real appreciation of what Britten stood for.
The Aldeburgh Music Festival and the Britten-Pears Foundation are wise to stage Owen Wingrave again, in the same place where the composer conducted the first public performance back in 1970. In 1914, men marched to war because they were led to believe that they were fighting “the war to end all wars”. One hundred years later, those who believe in military solutions seem to have learned nothing from a century of almost incessant warfare. More than ever, we need Owen Wingrave and Britten’s passionate opposition to mindless conformity.
Owen Wingrave was commissioned for television. Nearly a quarter of a million people watched it when it was first broadcast by the BBC in 1972, reaching audiences far beyond any opera house. That in itself is a statement about its significance. Composers wrote for film almost as soon as technology added sound to movies. Britten enjoyed going to the cinema, and spent his war years working for the GPO Film Unit. In Owen Wingrave, music and an understanding of film technique go together. The abstraction of music can be expressed through devices like split frames and juxtaposed images. On the physical stage, such things aren’t easy to carry off. At Aldeburgh, director Neil Bartlett has chosen a minimalist set, enhanced by dramatic light effects (Ian Scott). This reflects the austerity in the music, which in turn reflects the stark moral situation Owen is faced with. “Listen to the house!” the female singers repeat, their lines intertwining, as if a knot – or noose – were being drawn tight. For the house does speak – “creaks and rustles, groans and moans” .The oppressiveness is almost palpable. “The “boom of the cannonade”, created by percussion and low brass is so sinister that we could be hearing a thousand years of ghosts marching relentlessly towards death. The spirit of Paramore looms so large in the music that we don’t need to see the house to feel its malign presence. Better the dark shadows and spartan set, so our imaginations can conjure up unseen images of horror.
In the original film, portraits of Wingraves past line the walls, menacingly, and come alive, leaping at Owen, like the present members of his family scold him, singly and in unison. On film, that’s plausible, on stage it would be contrived. Bartlett, and choreographer and movement director Struan Leslie, use a group of young soldiers as a silent chorus. They operate in tight formation, as befits soldiers, but their movements also reflect figures in the music: a very subtle effect, which justifies their value in the production. They’re also useful for technical reasons – they move such furniture as there is on the bare stage, “building” the haunted room by reversing the panels that serve as walls. Most perceptive of all, the soldiers are young, inspiring more sympathy than if they mere replicas of wizened old Wingraves, ghosts perhaps of young men sent to early deaths. Victims and perpetrators, harnessed together in perpetuity, like the ghosts in the haunted room, like Owen and Paramore.
The stark staging has a further advantage in that it throws extra focus on the singers and on the Britten-Pears Orchestra, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, designated Music Director at the ENO when Edward Gardner moves on. Britten, Nagano and Richard Hickox hover over Wigglesworth, but he gives a good account of the music, stressing the clarity of the writing for solo instruments versus larger groups. Excellent experience for the young players in this orchestra, many of whom will go on to play in larger ensembles.
Ross Ramgobin sings Owen. Again, one retains memories of Gerald Finley and above all, Jacques Imbrailo, who created the part ten years ago when he was still a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme at the Royal Opera House. Imbrailo is perhaps the ideal Owen, since his voice shimmers with preternatural purity, but Ramgobin does well against such competition, which says a lot in his favour. Ramgobin’s voice is agile and light, with a much more convincingly youthful timbre than Benjamin Luxon and Peter Coleman-Wright.
Susan Bullock sings Miss Jane Wingrave. The part contains sharp edges, to emphasize the character’s sterile frustration. Bullock creates the effect of strangled tension without tightening throat or chest, but articulates her words with rapier-sharp diction. Catherine Backhouse sings a pert Kate, and Janis Kelly sings her mother Mrs Julian. Isaiah Bell sang Lechmere unusually well, his voice adding colours to the part, which could otherwise be interpreted as bland and callow. A singer to watch. Jonathan Summers sings Spencer Coyle and Samantha Crawford sings his wife, artfully suggesting the dynamic between the couple, where he controls and she is left to flutter prettily, but bleakly along. Richard Berkeley-Steele sang General Sir Philip Wingrave and James Way sang the Ballad singer, again with more personality (a good thing) than the part might otherwise attract.
image_description=Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh, 1968, photographer Hans Wild
product_title=Britten: Owen Wingrave, Aldeburgh Music Festival
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh, 1968 [Photo by Hans Wild]