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11 May 2013

Mulhouse: Rare Britten Well Done

National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.

The pacifist Britten wrote the piece for BBC television in 1971, partly as a response to the lingering Viet Nam War which was still raging. The structure of the dramatic episodes, the cross fades written into the transitions, and the contrasting instrumental sounds in the sparsely-scored work were all a consideration of the medium.

Indeed, my one and only experience with the piece was when PBS broadcast the original production in the early 70’s, when television sound was still rather rudimentary. Now encountering the work live in the theatre, I was not prepared for the rich diversity of the instrumental writing, nor for the sonorous ensemble effects. Britten was, of course, not only a master orchestrator, but quite adept at setting texts to good dramatic effect. He was well-served in Mulhouse by cast, band, and production leadership.

L’Opéra national du Rhin has wisely chosen to feature the excellent young members of their Opera Studio program and if the result is any indication, opera has a promising future in France. The title role is a Big Sing, with lots of it lying in the middle voice, and Laurent Deleuil essayed Owen with a well-schooled baritone that boasted a solid technique wedded to a (not overly) warm tone that had substantial presence. If the very top money notes pushed him to the limit, Mr. Deleuil nevertheless had the full arsenal of gifts necessary to score a considerable success as he anchored the production. Laurent is possessed of an easy, unaffected stage deportment and has very clear diction. If ultimately he didn’t yet quite feel the character’s convictions deep in his gut (especially at the start), this was nonetheless a memorable role assumption.

The towering Sévag Tachdjian gave much pleasure in his commanding turn as schoolmaster Coyle. Mr. Tachdjian’s orotund bass-baritone was passionately deployed and was evenly produced throughout the rangy part. But he needs a little more coaching on his pronunciation, since his somewhat odd-sounding vowels and soft consonants made me wonder at first if he was singing, in English. Handsome Jérémy Duffau was a lanky, coltish Lechmere, and his buzzy lyric tenor was engaged, solid, and fluid. He might check his tendency to appear too balletic in his movements in his embodiment of the young soldier.

Mélanie Moussay proved to be an imperious Miss Wingrave, with a distinguished vocal instrument of unanticipated maturity, resonance and power for one so young. Kristina Bitene combined excellent elocution and a wiry, committed demeanor to make Mrs. Julia a riveting personage in the unfolding drama. She also proved to have a reliable, wide-ranging soprano of pleasant bite and with a rock solid technique. Mmes. Moussay, Bitene, and the evening’s “Kate” made their extended trio “(“He will listen to the house”) a real musical highlight.

And speaking of Kate, Marie Cubaynes had much to offer with her dark-hued mezzo including a consistency and pulsing forward motion that served the opinionated, head-strong lass well. Her final duet with Owen was another highly affecting emotional landmark. Guillaume François proved a real “triple threat” as he took on the three roles of Sir Philip, Narrator, and the Phantom. His promising tenor sported a pleasant, steady tone, even if it had a moment or two in legato passages that were a little rough around the edges. Still, his rendition of the unaccompanied “folk song” was hauntingly beautiful, and very well controlled, especially at opera’s close.

Conductor David Syrus had a remarkable night in the pit, wringing every last variation of color from his talented, small band of musicians. That Maestro Syrus is a noted Britten specialist was self-evident based on the exceptional aural results of this performance. Just listen to the nuanced interweaving of text and orchestra, the gossamer sheen of the signature repeated chords, the rhythmic storm of effects he churns up, the inevitable unfolding of the conversational phrases, the effortless deliberation and weight of the ensembles. This was a wholly mesmerizing night of persuasive music-making.

Stage director Christophe Gayral, in tandem with set and lighting designer Eric Soyer were admirable models of restraint, and their modus operandi of “less is more” paid huge dividends. The set was all black legs, sliding doors, levels, and carefully chosen set pieces. On occasion, it suggested an Advent-calendar approach with insets (and characters) revealed, but only as long as they were pertinent.

The evening opened with a dumb-show, first revealing the boy dropping dead to the floor then effectively blending into a foreshadowing of Owen’s funeral. Especially telling was Kate’s fainting with guilt as she goes to place a rose in the blood red funeral spray (in the form of a cross). Of course, we don’t know any of these characters yet, but the scene cleverly gets us to speculate and anticipate the mysteries to come. Renaud Rubiamo has devised a number of gorgeous still projections and video effects, the most stunning being the requisite hall of portraits that at one point come eerily to life.

The only downside of the night was that the seats were only half-filled for this significant musical-dramatic achievement. But there is another chance to partake of its glories. Owen Wingrave will play two more performances this summer in Strasbourg (4 and 6 July). It would be worth the trip.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Owen Wingrave: Laurent Deleuil; Spencer Coyle: Sévag Tachdjian; Lechmere: Jérémy Duffau; Miss Wingrave: Mélanie Moussay; Mrs. Julian: Kristina Bitene; Kate: Marie Cubaynes; Sir Philip, Narrator, Phantom: Guillaume François; Boy Ghost: Victor Collin; Conductor: David Syrus; Stage Director: Christophe Gayral; Set and Lighting Design: Eric Soyer; Costume Design: Cidalia Da Costa; Video Design: Renaud Rubiamo

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