I’m sure before long I’ll see a production of Daisy Pulls It Off that opens with modern day soldiers charging onto the stage waving rifles about – it seems to be the first image directors reach for these days. At least here, though not specifically called for by the libretto, it does have some relevance – young Owen Wingrave is at military academy, but while his schoolfriend Lechmere can’t wait to be in the thick of it, Owen is beginning to entertain some doubts about the path his family’ expectations have set him on.

Joseph Padfield as Coyle, Samantha Crawford as Mrs Coyle © Clive Barda
Joseph Padfield as Coyle, Samantha Crawford as Mrs Coyle
© Clive Barda

The modern setting extends to a video screen on which we see what Owen is looking at on his laptop – news websites reporting atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally his own Facebook page (though the picture wasn’t clear enough to read the status update we see him adding). Whilst this is a more creative use of video than opera directors often manage, the updating does lead to a fairly obvious problem – is it plausible these days that Owen would encounter such Edwardian attitudes, not just from one or two people but from everyone around him? Wouldn’t it rather be the gung-ho militarist who found himself isolated?

That aside, director Kelly Robinson and designer Madeleine Boyd provide a compelling production in difficult circumstances – a traverse theatre space isn’t ideal for opera, especially vernacular opera, as half the time any given performer will be facing away from you or at best facing sideways, making comprehension difficult. Moreover, this is an immensely ambitious piece for students to take on – I don’t envy them trying to pick their pitches out of this late Britten score, written only nine years after the War Requiem and expressing much the same sentiments but in infinitely more sparse and angular music (especially in David Matthews’ reduced orchestration).

In general, critics are asked to be kind to student singers and not judge them by the same standards as professionals, but in the event no such caveat was necessary – the singing was almost uniformly excellent. As Owen, Benjamin Appl’s voice was clear and strong, and he’d certainly be employed by Abercrombie and Fitch, though it has to be said he didn’t bring a lot of acting to the role, either physically or in his vocal inflection. His teacher Coyle, who is also a close friend of the family (again more plausible in an Edwardian setting) was taken by Joseph Padfield, his singing warm and rounded but sometimes a little thick at the expense of clarity. Adam Smith’s Lechmere was a picture of puppylike eagerness to please. Amongst the smaller roles, Raphaela Papadakis impressed as the ambitious Mrs Julian, and Samantha Crawford made a sympathetic Mrs Coyle.

However, the palm undoubtedly goes to Gérard Schneider as General Sir Philip Wingrave, who managed to convey the character’s age without the need for a lot of hokey make up, and has a clear and powerful tenor voice that wasn’t fazed by the rather unexpected coloratura Britten expects of him. He was also probably the only singer whose every word was audible.

Like Peter Pears in the first performance, Schneider also takes the role of the narrator/ballad singer who relates the legend of the former Wingrave boy who refused to fight, accompanied by more video by James Adkins. Whilst having obvious points in common with The Turn of the Screw, also a Myfanwy Piper libretto from a Henry James short story, I’m not sure this ending quite makes sense – if the ghost is supposed to be the murdered boy, wouldn’t it have a certain fellow-feeling with Owen rather than wishing him harm? Well, no matter. Robinson springs one last surprise when it seems that not out of battle but into it, or at least into fatigues with his former classmates, Owen escapes.

The orchestra of GSMD students, under the baton of Head of Opera Studies Dominic Wheeler, approached this challenging score with confidence and poise. Plaudits also to the Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, directed by Scott Price, their contribution strongly reminiscent of the Te decet hymnus from the War Requiem. This isn’t the most approachable music Britten ever wrote, but as a performance it can stand comparison with anything offered by any professional London company.