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Reviews

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave
06 Apr 2009

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

In the parlance of a Hollywood film pitch, Britten's penultimate opera might be described as "War Requiem" meets "Turn of the Screw."

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

Peter Coleman-Wright - Owen Wingrave; Alan Opie - Spencer Coyle; James Gilchrist - Lechmere; Elizabeth Connell - Miss Wingrave; Janice Watson - Mrs Coyle; Sarah Fox - Mrs Julian; Pamela Helen Stephen - Kate; Robin Leggate - General Sir Philip Wingrave, Narrator. Tiffin Boys Choir. City of London Sinfonia. Richard Hickox, conducting.

CHAN 10473(2) [2CDs]

$34.99  Click to buy

An adaptation by Myfawny Piper of a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave relates the story of a young pacifist in a family of soldiers who tries to prove his bravery by spending the night in a room in the ancestral home supposedly haunted by two ghosts. In the morning he is discovered dead.

If that sounds like rather thin material for a full-length opera, it is. In two acts that run about 110 minutes, Owen Wingrave manages to feel much longer. Didactic and portentous, the libretto’s flat characters declare their positions in tedious, protracted arguments, only to reach a climax that strives for an eerie ambiguity but just feels unclear and unmotivated. The excellent booklet essay by Anthony Burton explains that similar criticism was made of Adams’s short story. Burton goes on to conclude that the opera is a “major personal statement” for Britten, which is all good and fine, but that doesn’t make it an artistic success. The score undoubtedly is “close-knit,” as Burton describes it, as it uses a few motifs over and over. Your reviewer cannot agree with Burton, however, that Britten’s music is “imaginative,” as it all sounds like music he had written, to greater effect, for other pieces. Besides the titles mentioned in the opening line of this review, strong echoes can also be heard of the Britten masterpiece Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

However, any work by a major composer such as Benjamin Britten deserves a hearing, and this Chandos recording, one of the last conducted by the late Richard Hickox, brings together excellent singers to give the work a fighting chance - no pun intended - at winning converts. Peter Coleman-Wright wrestles with his conscience in the title role, employing a smooth, well-modulated baritone. In the thankless roles of Owen’s belligerent family, Alan Opie and Elizabeth Connell try their best to fill out their one-dimensional characters. Janice Watson and James Gilchrist also make fine contributions.

The Chandos sound has its fans and detractors. For your reviewer, the aural picture boasts remarkable clarity, but that comes at the cost of being set at a very low-level, even for a classical release. For anyone with somewhat weak hearing, that necessitates a high level of output. Louder sections then blast out painfully, and if somehow one forgets to adjust the setting for the next music one listens to, sudden deafness is a real possibility.

For the most committed admirers of Britten’s music, this CD captures a fine performance. For anyone else with the slightest interest in the material, a fairly recent film production with Gerald Finley at least gives the viewer of Owen Wingrave some visual stimulation to make the 110 minutes pass a little less “pacifically.”

Chris Mullins

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