Owen Wingrave had its premiere broadcast in May 1971. I say broadcast as this later work by Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the BBC as a work for TV, it didn’t get its stage premiere until 1973. The story is of a young man from a military background who refuses to continue the family tradition of service, is summoned back home to explain himself and ends up the victim of an unexplained and somewhat macabre and tragic death.
The opera opens with Wingrave and his friend Lechmere receiving instruction in tactics from Mr. Coyle, a family friend and military instructor. Lechmere is very gung-ho and is looking forward to his career in the army, he can’t wait for the adventure and excitement of military life and combat. At one stage he sings a fragment of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in his excitement to get into action. All this grates on Wingrave and it’s during these lessons that he finally reveals his hatred and detestation of war and the military which sets in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to his death in the haunted room at his family home of Paramore (par amour?)
Back at Paramore his family and presumed fiancé Kate find the news Coyle has brought them about Owen hard to believe and when he himself arrives home their jokes about straightening himself out and having to grow up turn to charges of disloyalty and cowardice. When Owen is disinherited by Sir Philip Wingrave, Kate sees the future she has planned wit him crumble in front of her eyes and she taunts Owen about his stupidity, selfishness and cowardice. To disprove her charge of cowardice he takes up Kate’s challenge to sleep in the haunted room at Paramore. A room where a tragic death had befallen an ancestor. A father had killed his son and then mysteriously died himself in the room and none at paramore goes into it. Owen gets Kate to lock him in to prove he is not a coward but the house is woken during the night to screams and shouts and Owen is found mysteriously dead in the room.
The opera is an adaptation of a story by Henry James which caught Britten’s eye because of its pacifist theme and he makes this the overriding message of the opera. Pacifism was an issue that was very close to Britten’s heart and informed a number of his other works, most famously the War Requiem. Britten himself was a prominent pacifist and was excused from military service during World War II as a conscientious objector. He fled to America with the tenor Peter Pears in 1939 as the tanks of totalitarianism rolled across Europe and after returning to Britain many considered this an unforgivable act of cowardice (rather like with Owen Wingrave himself?). (Not for Britten were concert tours to support the war effort like another operatic hero of mine, the amazing English contralto Kathleen Ferrier). Owen Wingrave was broadly a comment on the Vietnam War which was at its height in 1968 when Britten began to work on the opera and was becoming protracted and bogged down by the time of its broadcast in 1971. A conflict whose moral compass appeared to be much less clear cut than the one Britten has absented himself from in the early 1940’s.
Britten is not a composer I particularly enjoy in the main as I find a lot of his work quite challenging musically and a touch hard to digest. Sometimes sharp and jarring, sometimes percussive, disconcerting and un-melodic, and occasionally there is a moral undercurrent I find a touch unsettling in some of his work, not least his ability to quite happily return to a Britain saved from the evil of nazism by a military he so patently despise.
The music in Owen Wingrave can be quite sparse and often merely forms a backdrop to the dialogue and action. One advantage from a singers point of view of this often withdrawn musical background is that it leaves a lot of space for voice to shine and can really show up a singers talents (or flaws). For me Britten is quite heavy handed in Owen Wingrave as he forces his political message a bit too stridently. An example of this is the continual and unabated verbal assault Owen comes under in Act II. He is attacked from all sides and Britten delineates his interpretation of right and wrong far too cleanly and then proceeds to hammer away at it continually. The situation can really only end in tragedy.
Opera Collective Ireland are currently touring Owen Wingrave in a co-production with the Académie de l’Opéra national de Paris.
Details of Opera Collective Ireland’s production are Here