Britten: Owen Wingrave

Peter Coleman-Wright, Alan Opie, Robert Leggate; CLS/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN10473(2))

11 June 2008 3.5 stars

Owen WingraveConventional wisdom says that Owen Wingrave, Benjamin Britten's television opera commissioned by the BBC in 1967 and first broadcast in 1971, represents a falling off of the composer's talents before he partially rediscovered them in his final opera, Death in Venice.

While preparing The Turn of the Screw in 1954, Britten had come across another Henry James ghost story, Owen Wingrave, and identified it as suitable material for a future opera. Its story of a young man who comes from a family of soldiers, rejects the follies of war and is in consequence shunned by them, was undoubtedly registered by Britten as an ideal way of expressing his own pacifist beliefs. It has also been seen in a looser autobiographical sense as a portrayal of the composer's social struggles in a time when homosexuality was considered unacceptable in some quarters. The opera was widely viewed, not only in Britain but abroad as well, and in 1973 it took to the stage at Covent Garden with its text completely unmodified, fulfilling Britten's opinion that it might work better in the theatre.

Yet in spite of several attempts in recent years to revive its fortunes, the piece has never had any kind of success, and extremely fine though this new recording is, I can't really muster much enthusiasm or admiration for the piece. On the one hand, the story is devoid of sympathetic characters: the Wingrave family's monolithic dismissal of Owen makes them thoroughly repulsive, but at the same time Owen himself is hard to care about. In order to prove that his anti-war sentiments motivated by conscience rather being than a sign of cowardice, Owen sleeps in a room haunted by the Wingrave ancestors and is found dead the next morning; unfortunately, this act just seems pathetic and unnecessary. And on the other hand, the music is far from top-drawer Britten. There's none of the lucidity or lyrical beauty of Turn of the Screw; nor is it so neatly constructed, though Wingrave is obviously an attempt to emulate the earlier piece's success.

All of that said, Richard Hickox's reading of the score is typical of the care he's shown on the earlier instalments of his growing series of Britten opera recordings. The City of London Sinfonia is captured in as sparkling a light as can be achieved in this relentlessly murky score, the brass in particular coming to the fore with exuberance. The influence of Indonesian gamelan music in this work has never particularly appealed to me before, largely because it seems out of place in the midst of this libretto, but Hickox manages to work the combinations of percussion, harp and piano in such a convincing way that one can enjoy them on a purely musical level.

Peter Coleman-Wright takes the title role here, but although he's one of my favourite singers, I'm not convinced of the suitability of his particular talents for the part of Owen. The voice is a little too sophisticated and lived-in; a strong sense of text and clear diction are obvious virtues, but I'd have liked someone more pure-sounding. The finest singer in the cast is Alan Opie as Spencer Coyle: impeccably stylish, he seems to bring new layers to the piece. Elizabeth Connell (Miss Wingrave), Janice Watson (Mrs Coyle) and Sarah Fox (Mrs Julian) are a strong team of women, and both James Gilchrist (Lechmere) and Robin Leggate (Philip Wingrave) make vivid contributions.

The recording quality is excellent, and one can't fault most of the performance, but I think this is one for Britten connoisseurs only.  

By Dominic McHugh