Grange Park Opera 2020 Review: Owen Wingrave

A Stylish Filmed Treatment of Britten’s Late Masterpiece

By Benjamin Poore

Lockdown has meant more people than ever consuming opera through streams, broadcasts, and archive videos, often from leading houses. It has proved a mixed experience for many. The spectacle of opera, and its broad-brush gestures, can feel boxy on the small screen; so too can its emotional climaxes feel oddly overblown out of a theatrical context. 

There have been innovative attempts to create opera for streaming, and for consumption without a live audience – VOpera have just produced “L’enfant et les sortilèges;” Irish National Opera produced a stripped-back lockdown “Seraglio.” So it’s exciting to see a new version from Grange Park Opera of Benjamin Britten’s made-for-TV pacifist masterpiece “Owen Wingrave,” another opera – like “The Turn of Screw” – after Henry James, and with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. 

Complex & Layered

Like James’ best ghost stories, “Owen Wingrave” intertwines the psychological and the supernatural. The titular character is at loggerheads with his military family – one with an old and glorious vintage –  and is sent to their country house “Paramore” to be “straightened out.” There, we learn in the prologue, an ancestor of Wingrave killed his own son because he refused to fight with his friend, only to then drop dead himself, of seemingly mysterious causes. Owen, after being disinherited for refusing to join the family profession – and declaring war itself a crime – sleeps overnight in the locked room where the boy was killed. Of course, he turns up dead himself.

It’s an opera charged with queer symbolism – the locked room from which Owen does not escape; the casting out of the shameful son for his lack of manliness; the homosocial hothouse of the military academy. The pacifist overtures of the opera are sometimes taken as a metaphor for Britten’s feelings, as a gay man, of alienation from the society around him. Nonetheless, Britten was composing his “War Requiem” at the same time, even reworking material from it into “Owen Wingrave,” and his claim that the opera was a response to Vietnam has a moral substance of its own. 

Britten’s music, though, clarifies the mood, even if the work’s themes are no less dense. The dissonant clusters of the opening imply the implacability of Wingrave’s position and his family’s opposition, as well as a kind of panicked instability in a world whose values, under scrutiny, go into freefall. The percussion contingent anticipates that of later alienated masterpiece of Death in Venice. Instead of that work’s Dionysian eroticism though, dry bongos and snaps of side drum make this a world of taut cruelty and unyielding martial discipline.  

Conductor James Henshaw coordinates percussion and solo trumpet – the latter featuring in the spine-tingling ballad Britten with which opens Act two – with the piano of Chris Hopkins. This reduced presentation lets us hear with greater clarity the spiky harmonies and angular melodies Britten’s twelve-tone inflected score yields up. The piano reduction gives the show an uneasy domesticity rather than the atmospheric backlighting of the orchestral version.

Stephen Medcalf’s contemporary production spotlights the anti-war messages. Susan Bullock’s Miss Wingrave is introduced to us playing a first-person shooter, eyes popping fanatically as she blows away pixelated enemies, the nihilistic narrowness of her worldview neatly visualized thereby (That first-person shooters like “Call of Duty” are critical to modern military recruitment strategy in the United States made this seem a particularly apt detail).

Montages of memorials to the First and Second World Wars take up scene changes – particularly potent sites of national pride and feeling, especially during this period of resurgent nationalist feeling. “They had no choice,” reads one, commemorating animals lost at the front – a potent distillation of the suffocating claustrophobia Wingrave experiences.

No Weak Links

Ross Ramgobin’s Owen is a great vehicle for the moral courage at the heart of the opera as well as its pity and humanity. His voice has enough metal in its core to give power and conviction, but not so much that it becomes metallic or overbearing; more lyrical moments are tender without being cloying. The undoubted high point comes in his great Act two monologue on peace, delivered outside Sir Phillip’s room. “Peace is not silent,” Ramgobin sang with unearthly quiet, “it is the voice of love.” The modern setting also means a modern ending, which I won’t spoil, but is one that substitutes the supernatural for pathos.  

There are no weak links in the ensemble cast, though it is an opera overstuffed with characters. Susan Bullock’s viperish Miss Wingrave is a particular highlight, though plenty of additional nastiness can be found in Madeleine Peirard’s Mrs. Julian too. Kitty Whately alternates tenderness and cold manipulation as Kate and is in silky voice throughout.  

William Dazeley does a classy turn as Coyle, understatedly capturing the man’s obvious affection and sense of responsibility for Owen, even as his loyalty to a rigid, masculine worldview keeps him from speaking out; Coyle plays his obvious guilty conscience with quiet restlessness. James Way offers an innocent rather than brutish Lechmere, honeyed and boyish in tone – it is fear and shame that undergird his bravado and bellicosity. Richard Berkeley Steele is a captivating Sir Phillip, fanatical and obstreperous, infantile in his tantrums and pathetic in his rages against the dying of his family’s glorious light.

The opera is shot in monochrome – perhaps as an homage to Britten’s 1970 original – with occasional flashes of color: blood-red wine, and the lifting of this ghostly cinematic veil in the final sequence. As a piece of filmmaking itself, there are some flaws. Camera movements can be uneven and ragged; some shots are awkwardly blocked; zooms and dollies don’t always have the requisite smoothness. Plenty of tools from the box of cinematic aesthetics are invoked – there are flashes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Buñuel, and Vertov, amongst others – to greater or lesser effect, though a visual style that can stand up to Britten’s idiosyncratic expressive language own is rather wanting. 

Plenty works though, and it is an engrossing and engaging piece of drama – the split-screen berating of Owen in Act One combines with the furious music to great intensity; a preponderance of shots from below gives the indoor settings a feeling of oppressive, claustrophobic heaviness. As an experiment in bringing opera to smaller screens, it is welcome indeed. 


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