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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Owen Wingrave (1970) [107:18]
Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone) – Owen Wingrave
Alan Opie (baritone) – Spencer Coyle
James Gilchrist (tenor) – Lechmere
Elizabeth Connell (soprano) – Miss Wingrave
Janice Watson (soprano) – Mrs Coyle
Sarah Fox (soprano) – Mrs Julian
Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo) – Kate
Robin Leggate (tenor) – General Sir Philip Wingrave and Narrator
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. Blackheath Halls, London, December 2007. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10473(2) [64:31 + 42:47]
Experience Classicsonline

This marvellous new recording, only the third in the work’s history, deserves to go a long way towards popularising this late Britten masterpiece.
It isn’t difficult to see why Owen Wingrave has always been one of Britten’s least popular stage works. Like all of his operas, it concerns an outsider and his attempts to fit into a world that does not accept him. In this case, however, it was a subject particularly close to Britten’s heart. A committed pacifist throughout his life, Britten struggled to fit into the culture of wartime Britain in the 1940s, indeed spending much of the war in the USA as a conscientious objector. So Henry James’ ghost story on this theme appealed to him more than normally.
Owen is the last in the long line of a family of military heroes. He rejects fighting and is shunned by his family and fiancée. As a test of courage she dares him to spend the night in the haunted room of the Wingrave mansion, Paramore. He does so, but is found dead the next morning, his death brought about by the strength of his own convictions. Britten’s opera was originally commissioned for television by the BBC in 1967 and his original cast recording survives on CD (only available now as part of a bigger set). However Britten always said that the opera would work just as well on stage and he supervised the first staged production at Covent Garden. The Linbury Theatre at Covent Garden performed it in April 2007, but the opera has seldom been revived and a new production of Owen Wingrave is a rare event indeed. Dramatically the opera isn’t as tight as Britten’s other operas, and the overt pacifism of Act 2 can get a little wearing, but there is much to enjoy, and this new set from Hickox is a perfect way to begin discovering it.
Britten was always a master of structure in his operas and he weaves a tight web through Owen Wingrave. In The Turn of the Screw, another James-based ghost story, Britten works the introduction to each scene as a steadily intensifying set of variations. Similarly, the prelude to Owen Wingrave consists of a musical depiction of each of the ten Wingrave portraits that adorn the walls of Paramore. Each portrait is accompanied by an instrumental cadenza; most striking is the fifth, a double portrait of the father who killed his son and whose ghosts are said to inhabit the haunted room. Britten takes these instrumental textures and honeycombs them through the opera, especially Act 1. The tone becomes more spectral with Act 2, which opens with a melancholy ballad (with off-stage tenor and boys’ chorus) telling the story of the ghosts. It is this vacant trumpet melody which dominates Act 2. The City of London Sinfonia has lots of experience of Britten opera under Hickox (listen to their outstanding Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rape of Lucretia) and they fit into this score as if it was made for them. The instrumental cadenzas each inhabit an entirely different characteristic, they are spellbinding when charting Owen’s convictions in Act 1 and terrifying when accompanying the tense nocturnal conversations at the end of Act 2. Furthermore they are just the right size for this kind of music: nothing is lost, but nothings is drowned out either. They remain one of the best Britten orchestras around.
Similarly, I have no doubt that Hickox is the greatest Britten conductor of our - or perhaps any - day. He has conducted nearly all of Britten’s operas for Chandos and Virgin/EMI and every one is a revelation. He manages to shed new light on each of these masterpieces in a way that even the composer’s own recordings don’t often manage and he is helped in every case - including this one - by demonstration quality sound. The “production” here is not intrusive: we hear singers approaching from the right and left but it does not distract. The off-stage events in Act 2 - the aforementioned ballad singer and Sir Philip’s denunciation of Owen - are ideally placed and only add to a sense of drama. Throughout, Hickox paces the drama ideally, allowing the slower passages, such as Owen’s dialogues with other characters, but building up extraordinary tension towards the dénouement.
The singing is also tremendous, with one exception. The tenor roles are sung dramatically, and the three Paramore women are particularly well characterised. Elizabeth Connell’s voice can be alarmingly piercing when first heard, but this is entirely appropriate for the shrieking harpy that Miss Wingrave is. Janet Watson and Sarah Fox differentiate the roles of mother and daughter well, no mean feat considering how similar the roles are. Alan Opie is marvellously authoritative as the teacher, Coyle: he and his on-stage wife, Janice Watson, provide the only grains of sympathy for Owen in the piece. It is, unfortunately, with Peter Coleman-Wright’s performance of the title character that we run into problems. There is a rather unpleasant “grit” to his voice, which too often leads to an unsteady timbre and uneven singing. At first I tried to ignore this, and then I tried to convince myself that it was part of his characterisation of the role: I’m not at all sure of this, though, and, regrettably, I think it’s more likely that he was just having a bad time while he was working on this recording.
This is a real shame, because if his performance had been more secure then this would easily become the top choice for this work. As it stands, we must continue to pay equal heed to Britten’s own recording with Benjamin Luxon, John Shirley-Quirk and Janet Baker. I still think that Hickox one wins out on balance, though: his compelling interpretation together with the orchestra and the marvellous sound make this a winner. Fans of Britten opera need not hesitate, and any other opera-lovers who fancy a challenge should head for this enthusiastically.
Simon Thompson


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