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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Owen Wingrave - opera for television (1967)
Owen Wingrave - Gerald Finley
Spencer Coyle - Peter Savidge
Lechmere - Hilton Marlton
Miss Wingrave - Josephine Barstow
Mrs Coyle - Anne Dawson
Mrs Julian - Elizabeth Gale
Kate Julian - Charlotte Hellekant
Sir Philip Wingrave - Martyn Hill
The Choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Director: Margaret Williams for Channel Four Television Corporation 2001
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS 100 373 [92:00]

Britten wrote Owen Wingrave in response to a 1967 commission from the BBC to write an opera specifically for television; he later said he thought it would work even better in the theatre. It’s good to have the re-release of this 2001 TV film on DVD. It was originally broadcast on Channel 4 and presumably its re-release is timed to coincide with the composer’s centenary.
With its small cast and frequent small-scale interactions between the characters, Owen Wingrave works particularly well on the small screen. Margaret Williams sets her film in 1958 and this helps to bring it closer to Britten’s own experience. Its pacifist subject was of central importance to the composer throughout his life. One of the reasons Britten accepted the commission was that it would allow him to broadcast his pacifist convictions to the widest possible audience. That pacifism is both the work’s strength and its downfall, though. It lends an unflinching moral purpose to the action, but the denunciations of war in the first act are preachy and repetitive. Admirable as Owen is, after taking his decision to leave the army he then seems to become a doormat for his family’s rabid denunciations. You often wish he would just stand up for himself a bit more. Still, the action remains compelling and there is some brilliant music in the score. As I said when I heard Richard Hickox’s Chandos recording, this work deserves a wider audience than the niche it currently occupies.
This being an opera specifically made for TV, rather than a recording of a staged performance, Margaret Williams embraces both the benefits and the limitations of the medium. The orchestra’s track is recorded elsewhere, but the characters sing in person on location (in other words, there is no lip-syncing), and the different acoustic is plainly reflected in the voice. You notice it, for example, when a character is singing inside a room and then goes outside to a more echo-y corridor. This lends a natural atmosphere to the whole recording which is very effective. When a character is thinking, though, we hear his or her thoughts at the same time as seeing a pensive face - all in a different, interior acoustic to the outward conversation they have just been having. This works particularly well in the social gatherings that take place at Paramore, the Wingraves’ country seat. The final scene of the first act is a very strained dinner party. We hear the interior thoughts of each character as the camera focuses on them one by one, but not a word is spoken until the tension explodes. The country house setting is very good, but the London scenes of mounted guards processing down the street are a bit tiresome.
Nagano’s direction of the Berlin orchestra is clean and precise, and the singing is extremely effective, too. In the title role Gerald Finley sounds splendid but looks uncomfortable. His rich vocal tone conveys the character’s heroism, but he looks permanently put-upon and has a look of pained submission etched forever on his face. Peter Savidge and Anne Dawson play the Coyles as the only sympathetic characters in the piece. They come across very well, both looking and sounding great. Hilton Marlton is a suitably irritating Lechmere. Charlotte Hellekant does as good a job as she can of making Kate a rounded character, but neither the composer nor the librettist help her in her task. Elizabeth Gale effectively portrays the self-seeking nature of Mrs Julian, and Martyn Hill is a suitably histrionic Sir Philip. The show is comprehensively stolen by Josephine Barstow, however, who chews up the scenery as Owen’s harpy of an aunt. Barstow’s shrill, penetrating tone cuts right to the quick of the character and she appears to be loving every minute of it.
You don’t have an awful lot of choice for Owen Wingrave in any medium, and that situation is unlikely to improve dramatically any time soon. Aside from Hickox’s recording there is the composer’s own, both on CD and DVD. This one stands up very well alongside them, though. The wide-screen ratio and the excellent 2.0 sound help to make it recommendable.
Simon Thompson  

See also review of previous release by Gary Higginson

Britten discography & review index: Owen Wingrave