Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, is rarely revived, and as far as the London critics are concerned should not have been revived on this occasion. I disagree, and so should any classical music lover for two reasons, the musical performances are almost all excellent and the Linbury Theatre is revealed as an ideal space for this kind of chamber opera piece.
So what about the piece itself? Much of the material, based on a Henry James short story, is strong. Owen, the sole child of a family devoted to military service, throws up his destined career. His infuriated family summon him back to the haunted family manse. There they seek to grind him down, headed by the cadaverous figure of his grandfather, General Sir Philip Wingrave, and abetted by haunting film shots of his various ancestors, hung over with the air of empire and the trenches. As they denounce him for his betrayal, his weakness, we gradually become aware of the determination behind Owen’s refusal to fight. As he sings in his evocation of the benefits of peace, “peace is strong”. So far so good, but at this point we do hit a snag in the drama, and, indeed, Britten’s music. Among the family rejecting him, is his fiancée Kate. After his tutor, Coyle, it is to her that Owen’s pleas are most frequently addressed. Her rejection, as opposed to that of the family really breaks him. Denounced by her as a coward, Owen expresses a willingness to do any act, and she commands him to pass the night in the haunted bedroom where, once, long ago, an ancestor died in mysterious circumstances having murdered his son for refusing to strike another child. Owen is locked in and dies in a similarly obscure fashion. Both musically, and dramatically, the piece ebbs at the end.
Not so the production, which despite going over the top once or twice, is highly effective. It takes place on two levels. The main stage dominated by a long, simple black table, and a raised corridor, from which the table is later hurled, on which the door to the fated room appears, and upon which are projected various telling pieces of film. Such devices usually irritate me, here they are mostly very effective. They include a library, from which Owen draws a real volume of Shelley’s poems (from among the artificially projected titles), and the various shots of his ancestors already referred to. But their great moment comes in the family dinner which closes the first act. The cast are all seated side on, with the exception of the gaunt General. Their faces are only visible to us via the camera projections on the back screen, which successfully move among the protagonists, before finally revealing the ghost of the child, visible on film and to the inhabitants of the room, but not to the audiences naked eye. The odd combination of the weight of these ancestors and their ghostly quality is effectively achieved throughout, and menace is effectively conjured by placing the door on the higher level – though even that cannot quite overcome the problem of the conclusion.
The highlights among this excellent cast are the Coyles and Owen Wingrave himself. The latter has much the hardest part but was possessed of excellent diction and sang with beauty and power throughout. Owen and Coyle seemed reminiscent of Billy and Vere in Billy Budd. Coyle whose books cannot provide him with the answers to family quarrels, Owen whose fight is fated to be lost. The frequent brass fanfares also seemed to recall the decks of the Indomitable.
The major change from that world is the importance of the female relationships. I believed in the bitterness of Kate’s mother when she sees her hopes of her daughter making a secure marriage dashed. I was drawn in by Mrs Coyle’s increasing dislike of the Wingrave household. And Kate’s shifting character I also found well drawn. At first she’s a cipher, joining the family hue and cry against the reprobate, and, like them, sounding vocally a little shrill. Then she’s the dutiful child at the General’s right arm at dinner, “keeping him young”. Next, she’s the heartless vamp flirting with Lechmere, Owen’s fellow student. But then something deepens. Having mercilessly rejected Owen’s pleas for understanding, she returns to him when the others have retired. They quickly quarrel and she accuses him of cowardice. This confrontation is among the most convincing moments of the opera. Musically things seem to be moving towards a climax. Instead, they peter out with the unsatisfactory ending already discussed. In this staging Kate cries out. The rest of the company rush to the fatal doorway. Kate’s mother glances inside and swoons. The General looks in and remarks that he is now the last of the family. Kate announces Owen’s death and her regrets. Then what one assumes are the ghosts of Owen and the murdered child emerge from the doorway, make their way down to kneel at the foot of the stage.
Despite the problems of the ending, I was struck by the highly critical tone of the reviews in all the major papers, especially given the superb performances here, whatever one may thing of the music or, indeed, the production. I wondered, in some cases, whether it actually has something to do with a fundamental point about the material. Do we still find it hard to recognise that a sacrifice in the cause of peace can be as noble as a sacrifice on the more obvious battlefield. In a way, the opera simply asks the same question that Baldrick puts to Blackadder in the trenches – “Why would it be silly just to pack it in, sir? Why?” This is still a question to which the militarists have no adequate answer, but which they are not asked nearly often enough. For that reason, if for no other, it seems to me important that Owen Wingrave should be staged.