Saturday, July 20, 2013

Owen Wingrave: You forget, you are the enemy too

Finley and Savidge: debating duty
Owen Wingrave may suffer by comparison with Britten's other operas, but it's still, to my mind, a stimulating piece, with exciting vocal writing, some specially beautiful music for its baritone hero, and a drama both moody and poignant. The novella by Henry James is largely expository in its treatment of a warlike family's conflict with last scion, as he turns his back on battlefields. James speaks of their old house as imbued with a "sense of bereavement and mourning and memory, of names never mentioned of the far-away plaint of widows and the echoes of battles and bad news. It was all military indeed, and Mr Coyle was made to shudder a little at the profession of which he helped to open the door to harmless young men." Wingrave is "almost cursed" with a sense of proportion more accurate than his family's.

The Arthaus DVD released earlier this year is of a 2001 for-television production: strangely, it seemed not quite formatted for square home screens. (More background on the 1971 work may be found here; original broadcast here.) Over forty years after the work's premiere, the idea of writing an opera for television still seems rather like a media experiment which might be productively repeated. The disc is mostly frill-less (and though there were credits for titles designers, I couldn't see that subtitling was an option) but it does include an hour-long documentary. I know comparatively little about Britten's biography, so enjoyed it thoroughly and without the ability to assess what elisions or overbold interpretative strokes may have undermined its accuracy or orthodoxy. Perhaps it was the fault of the screen I watched it on that no names for the interviewees appeared. It incorporates delightful footage, from rehearsals (numerous) to home footage of recorder-playing and playing with dogs in the backyard. It makes no mention of Owen Wingrave itself, however, despite the fact that the opera, to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, focuses the narrative on the problem of the individual against and within society (unsurprising to those who know, or even know of Peter Grimes.)

The musical caliber of the recording was high, with Kent Nagano leading the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in an account where the silky flow of the strings was starkly interrupted by ominous or pulsing percussion. While strongly atmospheric, the orchestral writing is less an agent-narrator than in Grimes, or even Turn of the Screw. This impression may have been heightened by the fact that the balance of the recording favored the singers. Peter Savidge made Mr. Coyle, Owen's teacher and unlikely advocate, credible and sympathetic. His singing was plangent with good phrasing and appropriately clipped diction, expressive of his intelligent, baffled kindliness.  Hilton Marlton brought a warm tenor and a good sense for language to the role of the dim Lechmere; I found him a bit monochromatic in dramatic terms, but this may be partly a consequence of the writing. Josephine Barstow the formidable aunt; the old-fashioned epithet of "battle-ax" could justly be applied to her. Unexpectedly touching was Anne Dawson as the sweet and fair Mrs. Coyle, whose nervousness was not equated with any wavering of conviction. I appreciated the non-erotic fierceness of Charlotte Hellekant's Kate, who loves Owen as a stand-in for herself. The rest of the secondary roles were solidly if less vividly filled.

Inevitably, Owen Wingrave dominates the opera vocally as he is not allowed to do in relation to the other characters, and Gerald Finley's singing was both indefatigably beautiful and subtly expressive.  He made both Owen's determination and the toll that it takes on him credible. It is crucially important to Britten's opera that Owen be not a wild-eyed idealist, but a fully-realized young man, who with clear sight makes and clings to a conscientious decision even though it risks relationships which are deeply important to him. It is this which both defines his moral victory and makes his tragedy possible. Finley's impassioned, tender delivery of the "Peace aria" was stunning. The directorial technique of having characters sing inner monologues struck me as more disruptive than its opposite might have been, but Finley was expressive in each moment, even disconcertingly transparent.

Margaret Williams' direction highlighted Owen as always in some way acting in relation to the "family circle" of Wingrave warriors from the 16th century to the Great War and beyond (she sets the work in the early 1950s.) The individuality of these ancestors was highlighted by the portrait of Owen's kind-eyed father overlooking Coyle's defense of war as the expression of a human urge for freedom, guided by the exercise of reason. The supporters of war, however, are otherwise all, like Kate, determined not to allow Owen's treacherous thoughts. The setting of Owen's Act I meditation at the Royal Artillery Memorial speaks eloquently to the need of  conscientious minorities in each generation to break and fight a tradition which keeps representing itself as unbroken. The piece is a concatenation of more or less claustrophobic scenes, with the hysterical undertones of polite conversation in the drawing room vividly portraying the negative effects of Owen's decision on those around him. His adamantine stance includes more criticism of ancestors as a group than in the story; I also thought that the production, wiping out the portraits of the ancestors, was less charitable and less discerning towards the past than Owen. It is only he who can see the pattern as a whole, peace as the courageous consummation of history and the voice of love.



  1. I watched this a couple of years ago and was impressed. Perhaps it's time to take another look. I do like GF in this kind of repertoire.

    1. So I took another look and felt somewhat ambivalent, especially about the updating. So I got hold of a copy of the 1970 BBC version with BB conducting. It's pretty amazing. Especially for a forty year old recording.

    2. I've only seen the original filtered through a grainy YouTube upload, but was still very impressed. I liked the intimacy of the Coyle household, and the tense energy of the whole.


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