Pacifism was one of the themes closest to Benjamin Britten's heart. He engaged with anti-war sentiments in works of various genres, from the War Requiem (which was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, after its reconstruction following bomb damage during the Second World War) to the Pacifist March (composed under the influence of Auden, who had persuaded Britten to support the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s).
His penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, is equally virulent in its pacifist sentiments, this time directed against the war in Vietnam. Britten and Myfanwy Piper adapted Henry James' gothic novella for broadcast on BBC television in 1971, and it was first performed live on stage at the Royal Opera House in 1973. The story revolves around Owen Wingrave's attempt to back out of his familial duties in military service, preferring peace to the savagery of his family and their ancestors ('In peace I have found my image', he sings). His family and his lover shun him and he is shut into the haunted bedroom of his ancestral home, where the ghosts of his forbears Colonel Wingrave and his son (who, in his day, also refused to fight, and was killed by the Colonel) are said to roam; Owen is found dead inside the bedroom.
Clearly, the two interconnected leading themes of pacifism and individualism are the backbone of this opera, but Tim Hopkins' new production for the Royal Opera in the Linbury Studio Theatre fails to get properly to grips with either. The only gestures towards the military are some model horses, a sword and a gun; in only one scene is Owen starkly depicted as separated from the other characters. Instead of engaging with the text, Hopkins uses most of his resources in highly repetitive, obtrusive and gimmicky film techniques that really start to jar after a while; stagehands operate hand-held cameras whose images are projected onto the backdrop, but since the camera operators are nearly always visible (and sometimes in the middle of the singers on the stage), there is little illusion. Furthermore, the oversize films of the toy horses being knocked over or of the family staring at Owen in rebuke often distract from the real action, while the horror effects are mainly laughable (the attempted coup de theatre at the end of Act One caused titters of mildly amused surprise such as one might hear the audience produce during Agatha Christie's The Moustrap, rather than true terror). And I've rarely seen such under-directed singers: they really do just stand there and sing for the most part, losing the opportunity for psychological development. At least Gideon Davey's beautiful high Victorian costumes add a touch of class to proceedings, bringing coherence to Hopkins' occasionally evocative but usually washed-up theatrical landscape.
Musically, too, this was a highly flawed affair. Former Young Artist Rory Macdonald has a superb natural physical talent for conducting and worked hard to make the singers heard and to drive the drama onwards. But on the whole, I found the interpretation calamitous. Despite Britten's huge dynamic range in the score, going right down to pianississimo (very, very softly), we rarely if ever got quieter than mezzo forte (medium loud); it meant that the singers and orchestra were nearly always on the same dynamic level for the entire evening. More importantly, though, the approach to the score seemed entirely contrary to the way Britten wrote opera. Despite being relatively modern chronologically, he was amongst the most traditional of opera composers who learnt the craft from the likes of Verdi (whose works he knew from witnessing his partner Peter Pears sing them) and Mozart (whose music he performed often). Philip Reed's admirably lucid programme note gives us the evidence from the composer's own lips: 'We've been adding arias galore.the audience needs the tunes, it needs the lyricism of the aria and the ensemble, rather than the realistic side of perpetual recitative'. Yet from the way Macdonald conducted the score, you'd have thought that there was only one aria (Owen's monologue in the second act) and otherwise, virtually total recitative. Almost all the singers were declamatory in delivery and the interpretation in general favoured localised word-setting rather than an understanding of arioso style (thus doing exactly the opposite of what Britten intended with regard to avoiding perpetual recitative). To give an example, in the opening scene Lechmere sings a neo-classically angular version of 'The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone/In the banks of death you'll find him'. It should be sung with a sense of line and continuity as a little 'song', and is meant to communicate the military theme of the opera; but in this rendition, each word and syllable was chopped up and homogenised, so that neither the musical style nor the dramatic theme came through. Perhaps it was the fault of David Matthews's reduction of Britten's orchestration down to a string quartet, percussion and winds; to me it was a travesty, draining the score of much of its expressivity, and on a practical level meant that the singers aren't supported by enough strings.
Nevertheless, in a performance which will immediately rank him amongst the greatest talents that the ROH's Young Artist scheme has ever nurtured, Jacques Imbrailo was highly accomplished and vocally dazzling Owen, belying his relative lack of experience. He alone showed imagination in his phrasing and brought psychological insight to the character, visibly losing patience and restraint as his family turns against him and his world disintegrates. I entirely disagree with the criticism levelled against the opera (and particularly this performance) that because Wingrave dies ten minutes before the end of the drama rather than at the very end, the curtain comes down on an anticlimax: for me, the sudden absence of Imbrailo's haunting and lyrically beautiful voice for those ten minutes made the realisation of his death both more striking and more poignant.
The only other notable voice in the production was Allison Cook as Kate, Owen's lover. Like Imbrailo, she made more of the aria structures in the piece, and she sang with both beauty and intelligence. To me, though, none of the other singers really imposed their personalities on the production either musically or dramatically, and none lived up to the still-dominating performers in the original 1971 cast (which included Heather Harper, Janet Baker and Peter Pears). Steven Page had clear diction and good intonation as Spencer Coyle, Vivian Tierney's projection as Miss Wingrave was excellent, Thomas Walker was a vigorous Lechmere and Richard Berkeley-Steele was luxury casting as the head of the family, General Sir Philip Wingrave. But they all failed to convey the splendour of this under-rated score because of the anti-lyrical approach.
British tenor Toby Spence sang the brief cameo role of the Narrator on a pre-recorded tape; he truly did understand the arch-like structure of Britten's vocal writing, and his interpretation of his brief song near the beginning of the second act was a moment of brilliance in a sadly uneven performance.