The heart-stopping red poppies are pouring out of Kirkwall Cathedral in Orkney and will soon reach the Black Watch Museum in Perth where they will be as the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme comes round on the 1st July. The timing of the Royal Conservatory of Scotland’s performances of Owen Wingrave, the mentally tortured would-be soldier who would not fight, could scarcely be more apt as we remember the Great War.
Pacifist Britten was deeply troubled by the Vietnam War and returned to Henry James as the inspiration for this bitterly anti-war work once again employing Turn of the Screw librettist Myfanwy Piper. Television brought the Vietnam War graphically into living rooms across the world, and it was for television that this opera was commissioned by the BBC. Until recently this work has been rather neglected and unloved, but an orchestration for reduced forces by David Matthews aligning it with Britten’s other chamber operas has given it a new lease of life with a recent outing at the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals and a British Youth Opera production to come this year. This performance by the Conservatoire, laden with tension packed a huge emotional punch, making the case for this opera to be more widely seen.
On the face of it, James’ tale is very simple: the Wingrave family has provided generations of soldiers, yet Owen, although he has embarked on military training with his friend Lechmere under Mr Coyle, decides soldiering is not for him. There is a huge fuss when he returns home to Paramore, the country seat of the Wingraves, with every character in the opera set vehemently against him. Eventually he falls out with his grandfather Sir Philip Wingrave, loses his inheritance and the possibility of marrying his beloved Kate Julien is dashed. Championing outsiders is Britten at his very best. This is a study of a damaged man comprehensively ostracised but tempered by ghostly happenings in the old house, and in this production, Owen finds a terrible release.
Director Oliver Platt and designer Cordelia Chisholm created a simple dark set of panelled walls in an old country house and with gauzes slowly flying in and out it seemed as if the house was a character itself closing in on Owen. Victorian costumes were all in muted colours like a television set with the colour turned almost right down and Alex Kilgour’s ever changing white lighting palette brilliantly intensified the already brittle atmosphere. Adding Britten’s astonishing music from the tiny chamber orchestra on top form relishing the challenge of this difficult score ratcheted the tension to breaking point, encouraged by conductor Timothy Dean.
Britten's singers get sparse help from the pit, and have to be confident to plough on regardless. It is a huge task, even for Opera Conservatoire students, and happily this was a very finely sung production from everyone, all crisp diction (there were no supertitles) and with Christopher Nairne as Wingrave giving the performance of his career in wounded baritone. There were so many memorable moments – you could almost reach out and touch the tension during his duet with Lynn Bellamy as Kate, two strong clear voices in unresolved disagreement and his soliloquy for peace was heart-breaking. David Horton was a stern Sir Philip, but also a moving narrator explaining the story of the strange death of a boy and his father, the subject of a double portrait. Annabella Ellis as Mrs Coyle is the only character to show an iota of sympathy for Owen was part of a strong trio of women. Stefan Berkieta was a gentle Mr Coyle and Kenneth Reid Owen’s baffled friend Lachmere, invited to an awkward dinner at the big house to try to bring Owen round.
Opera is a team effort, and I liked the generous touch of putting biographies in the programme of some of the senior production students alongside the singers, from scenic artists and prop makers to those who actually make the costumes, normally unsung heroes in the tiniest print but all with artistic careers ahead of them.
In the dreamy and dark setting sometimes we cannot be too sure who is actually real in this production, and Owen Wingrave sees soldiers in his sleep, or spectrally lurking in doorways. What lingers is the vision of pacifist Owen, freed from his tormentors at last, joining the spirit world and walking towards us as the offstage childrens’ voices from the Conservatoire Children’s Chorus sing their plaintive trumpet calls in a shattering and moving beautiful finish.
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