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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Owen Wingrave

Gerald Finley (bar) - Owen Wingrave; Peter Savidge (bar) - Spencer Coyle; Hilton Marlton (ten) - Lechmere; Josephine Barstow (sop) - Miss Wingrave; Anne Dawson (sop) - Mrs.Coyle ; Elizabeth Gale (sop) - Mrs. Julian; Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo) - Kate; Martyn Hill (ten) - Sir Philip Wingrave; Andrew Burden (narrator)
Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, Berlin/Kent Nagano
Also includes 'Benjamin Britten - The Hidden Heart' - a film directed by Teresa Griffiths
Video Director: Margaret Williams
ARTHAUS DVD 100372 [150 minutes]

Although I was, I must admit, only at school I can just about recall the televised performance of Owen Wingrave in 1971. It received a rather poor press, I remember. Nevertheless the music made an impression, at least on me, so when it finally came to the Royal Opera House I went to see it on May 12th, 1973. It was conducted by Steuart Bedford with Benjamin Luxon as Owen and Peter Pears as Sir Philip and the Narrator. Suddenly the real drama came alive and the work scored quite a success, although, in truth, it has not quite ranked as one of Britten's best operas. Seeing this, stunning DVD however, I am now entirely won over and I feel that the work has been much underestimated.

The libretto by Myfanwy Piper is excellent and utterly singable being based on a curious ghost story by Henry James whose ‘Turn of the Screw’ had been used by Britten well over ten years previously. Piper had been responsible for that libretto too.

The plot concerns a family of lower aristocratic stock who, for generations going back to Cromwellian times, had always fought and died when their country needed them. Owen is at military school when he realizes that this way of life is not for him and returns home to find himself ostracized by family, friends and fiancée Kate. He is a typical Britten character - the outsider within an enclosed society.

A room in the house is haunted by a vengeful ancestor and Kate wants to test Owen's true mettle by daring him to spend the night there. Owen agrees and allows himself to be locked in. The next morning Owen is found dead on the floor and Kate blames herself; the ancestor has taken his revenge. In this DVD the action is updated to the 1950s from the original Edwardian era. I find this unnecessary and not all that helpful.

There is nothing 'stagey' about the production. We are in a real live, slightly decaying, country home where the camera is free to roam inside and out. The characters were filmed singing live to camera, neatly allied to an orchestral backing track. The differences in acoustic between singing in the hall and singing outside may seem odd at first but for the most part it works. In any event you soon get used to differing echo effects. Oddly enough Britten's orchestration allows for these geo-physical alterations. The lighting can be very atmospheric especially in the scene on the upstairs landing between Owen and Kate when for a few moments they seem as if they might be reconciled.

This DVD offers a very strong cast. It is as strong as the one I saw in 1973 which also included Janet Baker as Kate, played here in a wonderfully strong and determined manner by Charlotte Hellekant. Mrs. Coyle, originally played by the much lamented Heather Harper, is sung by Anne Dawson, surely Harper’s equal. I am enormously impressed by a strongly dignified Gerald Finley as Owen, who I have not seen before. Martyn Hill is also memorable in a cameo that brings focus and a lead. Hill’s make-up, by the way, is very impressive.

I have never thought of Kent Nagano or the Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, for that matter, as Britten proponents. However Nagano’s direction is ideal. He and his orchestra demonstrate real sensitivity to this at times rather fragile music, typical of the sound-world of late Britten.

In addition to the opera there is a 57 minute Britten documentary, 'The Hidden Heart'. This concentrates on Peter Grimes, the War Requiem and Death in Venice and has interviews with those who knew Britten and Pears. The counter-tenor James Bowman famously describes the couple as ‘entirely respectable’ ... ‘Prep school masters’. Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya are also interviewed. Incidentally the subtitles, which I particular needed during the Russian language interviews, were a bit tangled up. The English one came out German, the German as Spanish and the Spanish as French!

Margaret Williams takes a strongly active approach in direction with quickly moving camera angles, singers singing to themselves to reflect thought processes, voices off and other tricks. Although this might irritate some viewers it should not detract from such an excellent project which might well resuscitate the opera’s fortunes.

Gary Higginson

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