BRITTEN Owen Wingrave
After experimenting with smaller-scale forms of musical theatre throughout the 1960s, Britten returned to “grand” opera in Owen Wingrave, based on Henry James’s pacifist debate about following the flag or one’s conscience. Premiered as a TV commission (where it was awkwardly cast by the composer with wonderful voices who looked too old for their parts), Wingrave enjoyed unmerited Cinderella status among Britten’s stage works until the recent TV film conducted by Kent Nagano (ArtHaus, 3/04, with Gerald Finley in the title-role) and an innovative stage production last year by Tim Hopkins at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.
Over the years Richard Hickox has used his studio skills to telling effect in the vocal works of Britten. In this new recording following concert performances, Peter Coleman-Wright is most adept at conveying Owen’s pain and troubled conscience, the while never giving way to an over-emotionalism untrue to anyone brought up in a soldier’s family. Alan Opie, in what is in many ways the beau role of the military tutor Spencer Coyle, achieves both a superb neutrality and an evident empathy with Owen’s decision to quit the military life. Robin Leggate avoids caricature (or simple Peter Pears homage) in the small but essential role of the family termagant, General Sir Philip Wingrave. The women are no less characterful, with an especially sympathetic reading of Coyle’s wife from Janice Watson.
Throughout Wingrave, Britten’s cunning reworking of rhythmic structures and harmonic devices pioneered as early as Peter Grimes reaches a new level of plasticity and sophistication. The shimmer of orchestral sound – sometimes impressionistic, sometimes Gamelan-influenced, sometimes wholly percussive – is a still insufficiently appreciated wonder of 1970s operatic writing. The core duets of Coyle/Wingrave, Wingrave/Lechmere and Wingrave/Kate (in which she sets the reluctant soldier the challenge of spending a night alone in the haunted room) are anchored on a sophisticated version of the tonal atonal structures on which Britten had once based The Turn of the Screw. It lends the drama an amazing tensile strength, closely parallel to the Berg operas which Britten wanted to get to know better in the 1930s but was discouraged by his teachers from approaching too closely.
The new set, in Chandos’s customary natural comfortable sound, becomes the first recording in any medium to do the work full musical and dramatic justice. It should also satisfy the curiosity of those who wonder why its devotees hail Wingrave as Britten’s greatest completed opera.