Using the same source novelist (Henry James) and librettist (Myfanwy Piper) as The Turn of the Screw, Britten's penultimate opera is the tale of a young man from a military family who is hounded and haunted to death for refusing to become a soldier like his forebears. Conceived for television and first seen on BBC2 in May 1971, Owen Wingrave should lend itself to creative staging, although none I’ve seen to date can match Neil Bartlett’s inventive vision for the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival. That’s the production that almost persuaded me it’s Britten’s cinderella opera, unfairly neglected and ripe for re-evaluation.

Ross Ramgobin (Owen Wingrave) © Grange Park Opera
Ross Ramgobin (Owen Wingrave)
© Grange Park Opera

Almost. Director Stephen Medcalf’s new film for Grange Park Opera has checked that blood-rush of positivity, despite the presence in its excellent cast of five alumni from that version. This disappointment is nobody’s fault. The decision to update the opera and transpose the Wingraves’ country pile, Paramore, to a contemporary homestead, was a practical one born of necessity. The project was put together at speed last September and had to be achieved with social distancing in mind. However, these modern settings accentuate Owen Wingrave’s inherent failings. The first 40 minutes are an especial slog, musically and dramaturgically, with successive scenes of lumbering exposition that advance the plot faintly at best and lack the inspiration that Britten and Piper would rediscover two years later for Death in Venice. Too many characters exist to serve a shared dramatic purpose; thus poor, doomed Owen (baritone Ross Ramgobin, as resonant as ever and wholly immersed in his role) is faced by a quartet of antagonists who could easily have been conflated into two. Miss Wingrave, General Wingrave, Mrs Julian and her daughter Kate form a wall of harrumphing repetition and, incidentally, indulge in the longest series of goodnights (eight – I counted) since The Rape of Lucretia or The Waltons.

Susan Bullock (Miss Wingrave) and William Dazeley (Spencer Coyle) © Grange Park Opera
Susan Bullock (Miss Wingrave) and William Dazeley (Spencer Coyle)
© Grange Park Opera

The singers mime to a pre-recorded performance of themselves accompanied not by Britten’s orchestra but by the piano and percussion of Chris Hopkins and Craig Apps. Both musicians are outstanding, and once an oddly silent game of ping-pong is over the ear adjusts to the spare sound. The eye does, too, with the black-and-white of Fintan O’Connor’s sumptuous widescreen photography starkly flecked with poppy-red at key moments.

An unexpected by-product of the modern setting is to make Britten’s pacifism seems doubly simplistic. Nowadays, awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the currency of camera-captured warfare make it less likely that Owen would ever feel constrained by romantic notions of family duty and tradition. However, dramatic licence is pardoned by some fabulous performances. Ramgobin fences against an A-team of Richard Berkeley Steele (General Wingrave) and the three witches of Paramore. Susan Bullock plays Miss Wingrave as a wargaming jingoist while Madeleine Pierard and Kitty Whately chew the soft furnishings as the Julians, mėre et fille.

Madeleine Pierard (Mrs Julian) and Kitty Whately (Kate Julian) © Grange Park Opera
Madeleine Pierard (Mrs Julian) and Kitty Whately (Kate Julian)
© Grange Park Opera

The remaining cast members do well in poorly sketched roles. Tenor James Way shines youthfully as Owen’s friend Lechmere while William Dazeley and Janis Kelly do an admirable job of fleshing out the sympathetic if ineffectual Coyles. The unseen presence of conductor James Henshaw ensures a secure, finely balanced reading that teases out all the score’s latent potential. There is no boys choir to sing the ballad of Paramore, just an anonymous solo voice, and Medcalf dispenses with the scenario’s ghostliness along with the rest of its Edwardian values; yet, unlike the peaceful Owen, his production packs a punch.


This performance was reviewed from the Grange Park Opera video stream

****1