Benjamin Britten - Owen Wingrave
Opera Collective Ireland, 2017
Stephen Barlow, Tom Creed, Benjamin Russell, Christopher Cull, Peter O'Reilly, Roisín Walsh, Rachel Croash, Amy Ní Fherarraigh, Sarah Richmond, Andrew Boushell
O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin - 16th September 2017
Up until now Owen Wingrave has been the only Britten opera that I haven't had the opportunity to see or write about. And as good as this 2017 Opera Collective Ireland production was at the Dublin Fringe Festival - and there are certainly qualities to admire in the work - I think however I can see why it is so rarely performed. It's an opera with some very obvious flaws and certainly a lesser work by the composer.
I don't think however that anyone can question the sincerity of purpose of the opera, or Britten's fervent belief in and commitment to spreading the gospel of pacifism. Henry James's short story Owen Wingrave and the opportunity to present the work to a wider audience as a television opera might have seemed like a good vehicle to get that message across, but both seem to involve some measure of compromise with both the medium and the message.
Being written for TV presentation isn't necessarily the problem, since Britten had reservations about the new medium and strove to ensure that the opera was composed to also work as a stage drama, but there is still little of real dramatic interest in the piece. It might be a little reductive - which I think is also a fault with the opera - but essentially it seems to me to be about a young man from a family with a proud military history who says he's had enough of this war lark and doesn't want to train to be a soldier. The remainder of the opera is a series of condemnations and accusations of cowardice from his family and his fiancée's family who line up to take turns to castigate him for his decision.
There is also a ghost story element that is added to bring another dimension to the work and to show the difference between cowardice born out of fear and genuine conscientious objection to the horror of war. The supernatural element however is nowhere near as effective or of an essence to the piece as it is in Britten's other Henry James adaptation The Turn of the Screw, and it feels oddly out of place with the rather more serious intentions of the work.
Like the previous adaptation however, Britten does develop a distinctive, eerie and often challenging musical treatment for the work with greater emphasis here on percussion and use of the gamelan. Britten also makes an effort to introduce some arias and haunting 'Malo malo' moments, but the discoursive nature of the piece means that it is heavily reliant on preachy recitative. And posh preachy recitative at that, much too tied up in old family traditions and class concerns to really touch upon the essential matters at the heart of the subject.
The production design for the Opera Collective Ireland production directed by Tom Creed made some effort to update the work with references to Kandahar and the Falklands, as well as seeking to find some other ways to represent it visually, but none of them managed to enliven the work, make it any more engaging or even illustrate the at times difficult to make-out words of Myfanwy Piper's libretto. Instead of family portraits and a mansion we have a room filled with stuffed birds of prey and an isolating border wall. Projections also contribute to representational undercurrents of blind nationalism in an imposing Union Jack, and to the more sinister side of it in shadows of the hawks coming to life.
On the performance side, a good cast made the most of the roles and did their best to give them distinguishing characteristics and personality that is hard to find elsewhere in their almost unanimous condemnation of the reluctant soldier. Benjamin Russell's clear-voiced baritone was well suited to the role of Owen Wingrave and in how it blended in with Stephen Barlow's conducting of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and Andrew Boushell's tenor soared as Sir Philip and the ballad singer. The stand-out performance however was Amy Ní Fherarraigh who cut through all the manners and mannerisms and gave us a steely, determined and frankly intimidating Mrs Julian. If only the horror of war and the supernatural elements had been depicted half as vividly as her Mrs Julian, the fate of Owen Wingrave would indeed have been something truly to fear.
Links: Opera Collective Ireland