Sunday 15 June 2014

Aldeburgh Festival 2014 - Owen Wingrave, or, Marking a Different Centenary

Aldeburgh Music has an enviable track record in opera productions in recent years, but this year's offering represented a tougher proposition. While Britten's Owen Wingrave is a sensible choice for the World War One centenary year, it is a work one previous encounter with which led me to feel is not on a level with masterpieces like Grimes and Budd, and I wondered in advance how this new production would fare. Fortunately it has many positive things going for it.

Under the expert guidance of Mark Wigglesworth (a promising marker ahead of his assumption of the ENO Musical Directorship in 2015), the Britten-Pears Orchestra demonstrated again (as was the case in Grimes last year) just what energy, punch and sense of drama young players can bring to opera. I repeat what I said then that it is greatly to Aldeburgh Music's credit that they take the risk of mounting productions like this with such forces. The orchestral playing throughout was superb. Wigglesworth in his shaping of the piece also made the strongest possible case for the score – he even managed to make the ending less problematic, an issue that stuck out for me on first hearing the work at the Royal Opera.

The line-up of soloists was also very strong. Russ Ramgobin gave as strong a performance of Owen as I recall Jacques Imbrailo giving in the Linbury. Jonathan Summers was compelling both vocally and dramatically as Coyle (somewhat to my surprise as my recollection of the last time I heard him live was less favourable). There was a particularly sympathetically done turn from Samantha Crawford as Mrs Coyle, and an appropriately chilly, arrogant performance from Catherine Backhouse as Kate. The other supporting roles were all well taken.

Neil Bartlett's production I found mixed. It's fairly spare, which in itself works well enough and the management of characters and the interaction between them is effective. The dinner party sequence with its sequence of individual mental thoughts showed both the production and Britten's score at their best. It's a model of Britten's ability to set the English language, illuminating each character with that single telling line. I was less convinced about the large numbers of extras who are there to move the walls around and double up as ghostly ancestors. I didn't think Struan Leslie's movement here was especially effective, it seemed to be a bit unclear who could see these people and who couldn't, and, ultimately, I do feel that on the whole less is more when it comes to haunting presences. On the other hand, there is an argument that the nature of the work requires you to do something visual in some of those stretches.

My other reservation concerned the absence of surtitles. I recall being much more struck by the pacifist-militarist debate in the text in the Royal Opera House production. Here, despite the best efforts of the singers I was less able to make out the words. I've not previously had this problem at the Maltings but I suspect in retrospect this was partly because I knew the texts of Grimes and the Knussen Double Bill much better. The Maltings is a tricky house to get words over in and I do wonder whether it might be time, given that the Festival does opera most years, to revisit this question.

Overall, this was an evening of strong performances and a solid production, but one which despite these efforts couldn't completely transcend some of the shortcomings of the work.

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