Britten confessed the experience of playing at the recently liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen “coloured everything he had written subsequently”.

The strength of Britten's hatred of war and his firm pacifist beliefs have been well documented. In Tony Britten's 2013 film Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict, the young Britten was shown as a product of a school reeling from heavy losses in the First World War, objecting to joining the cadet force and siding with fellow school mates (later communist spies) Donald Maclean and James Klugmann. In his early school boy diaries, Britten makes accounts of seeing the German navy from his bedroom window in Lowestoft and hearing the drone of the approaching zeppelins. War then, and its tragic consequence featured frequently for that generation, and Ben was quite confident as a young teenager to begin making powerful expressions of his feelings towards conflict.

Ross Ramgobin (Owen Wingrave) © Robert Workman
Ross Ramgobin (Owen Wingrave)
© Robert Workman

There is perhaps no more powerful an expression of anti-war than Britten's 1962 War Requiem, its effect which Britten's concert manager Sue Phipps once described as “shocking”. Owen Wingrave, aptly produced this year by the Aldeburgh Festival in the centenary year of the First World War, was another display of this anti-war sentiment, a reaction later that same decade to the Vietnam conflict, with perhaps the activity of the American Air Force bases near to Aldeburgh acting as a daily reminder to the incurring costs to human life.

My last experience of Owen Wingrave was at Glyndebourne in 1997 with Gerald Finley in the title role. Aldeburgh's 2014 production is something quite different. Glyndebourne gave us a set akin to the original television production from 1971, with sweeping staircase and a rather intriguing portrait of a Wingrave ancestor bearing a striking resemblance to the young Peter Pears. Aldeburgh's Director Neil Bartlett uses a seemingly empty stage to simple yet stunning effect, with a constant presence of “the dead” following the tormented Owen as he struggles against the will of his family to join the long line of officers which the family have provided to the military. Their silent entry on stage in the form of soldiers in modern uniforms or servants of the grand house Paramore (which is also absent from the stage), is accompanied by a solemn musical motif reminiscent of Sinfonia de Requiem. The intensity they bring with their aggression towards the audience makes one sit uneasy immediately upon their emergence onto the stage.

Isaiah Bell (Lechmere) and Catherine Blackhouse (Kate Julian) © Robert Workman
Isaiah Bell (Lechmere) and Catherine Blackhouse (Kate Julian)
© Robert Workman

The minimalist set, in the form of a series of large panels, are moved with rapid precision by the “dead” across an otherwise black stage, with lights clearly picking out their targets; a small cast including the dominant ladies of the Paramore household, the wheelchair-bound Sir Philip, and Owen's somewhat frosty bride-to-be, played by the excellent young mezzo Catherine Backhouse. The vigour with which they all chastise and scold Owen for turning his back on his family's tradition of becoming a serving officer is terrifying and uncomfortable, particularly in today's fairly liberal society of free speech and free choice.

Isaiah Bell as Lechmere and Ross Ramgobin are wonderfully contrasting in their youthful enthusiasm and energy, Lechmere as the keen soldier in training, and Owen, whose doubt increases through his Sandhurst training and his eventual confrontation with his family. Only Mrs Coyle, (the Australian-British soprano Samantha Crawford) their tutor's wife, shows a glimmer of empathy towards Owen's turmoil as she imagines her own son being sent off to war. 

Youth is a strong theme throughout this production, not only in the subject matter of the opera, but also amongst its cast and orchestra. Aldeburgh takes great pride in its celebration and encouragement of young talent, and it is a delight to hear an orchestra in particular whose members are either current conservatoire students or recent graduates from over 35 countries. Their playing throughout of David Matthews' chamber reduction of the original haunting score was stylish and extremely sensitive. Their role included not just accompanying the cast but delivering the orchestral motifs that define not only Britten's peculiar timbres, but the astonishing power of a music pouring direct from Britten's heart. The military costumes of “the dead” also provoke recent memories of repatriations of today's young soliders from Afghanistan.

The other group of youngsters who deserve a mention are the trebles from Chelmsford Cathedral. Their off-stage 'trumpet call' in Act II beautifully contrasts with the on-stage ballad, sensitively sung by former King's College choral scholar, James Way. Their appearance on stage with “the dead” as Owen approaches his tragic final challenge of sleeping in the haunted room of Paramore, adds a terrific and terrible poignancy to the scene.

Owen Wingrave could be seen as Britten's reaction to looking in a mirror; “My fight” Owen sings, about a subject which is clear by the composer's output, and was clearly his fight too. In a world that sees racial hatred and resulting violence across the world, Aldeburgh's stylish production re-establishes the meaning of Owen Wingrave for a new generation, performed by the new generation.

*****