Britten’s Owen Wingrave is one of very few operas written for television. It’s also the second opera Britten wrote based on a Henry James ghost story. Owen Wingrave comes from a family of soldiers and their portraits and their ghosts dominate the family mansion. Owen is an officer cadet and a brilliant student who, for reasons of conscience, decides to abandon the family line of work. The family, his fiancée, his ancestors and the house are not at all keen on the idea. There is no happy ending.
The version I watched is a 2001 production directed by Margaret Williams for Channel Four. The story has been updated to the 1950s which works fine. Filming is extremely atmospheric mixing location shots with archive footage of troops parading in London. Clever use is made of fades into black and white and a certain ambiguity surrounds the ghost figures. Musically and dramatically it is very strong throughout. The ever reliable Gerald Finley sings the title role brilliantly. He often seems at his best in modern music and this is no exception. He is both powerful and sensitive while always remaining thoroughly musical. The other stand out is Peter Savidge as the military academic Coyle; the one character who makes a real effort to understand Owen. His is a really sensitive, nuanced and finely sung performance. I also enjoyed the rather fetching Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant as Kate, Owen’s girlfriend. The only singer I have reservations about is Josephine Bairstow as Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt. She seems a bit shrill to me but maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly one with the role. All of the singers articulate clearly, sound idiomatic in English and are well recorded. This is more than usually important as there are no subtitles on the disc. Kent Nagano directs the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a neat, tight reading of the score which is twelve tone influenced with a lot of tuned percussion. There seem, appropriately enough, to be a few references back to the War Requiem buried in there. The choral contribution, which is pretty small, is from the choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir. All in all this is a very fine realisation of a work I’m glad I have now seen as, up until today, it was one of only a couple of Britten operas that I had neither seen nor heard.
Technically it’s a pretty limited affair. The picture is 16:9 anamorphic and the only sound option is Dolby stereo. As mentioned before there are no subtitles. The disc does include an hour long documentary about Britten called The Hidden Heart. It’s a bit vague and waffly but it does include some interesting archive footage. The disc is available from Kultur in North America and Arthaus in Europe.
Here’s the preview:
Second thoughts (2013) here.