Great though my admiration for Benjamin Britten’s music is I wouldn’t consider him a creator of memorable female characters. There’s Ellen Orford, of course, but one struggles to find a Tosca, Lucia or Violetta in his oeuvre. I open with this because what struck me watching the 2001 Channel 4 film of Owen Wingrave for a second time was how generally unsympathetic the female characters are. This is an opera with a female librettist (Myfanwy Piper) and the film has a female director (Margaret Williams) yet, with the exception of the fairly ineffectual Mrs. Coyle, the female characters embody an unthinking militarism and behave with extreme malevolence towards Wingrave; none more so than his “girlfriend” Kate. The filming reinforces this with close up scenes of groups of the women spitting venom at young Wingrave.
It’s not that there aren’t equally unsympathetic male character. General Coyle is a piece of work and Lechmere is typical of those of my contemporaries who went into the same line of work; gung-ho and utterly unaware of self. That said, the sympathetic characters are male; most notably of course Coyle who comes closer than anyone to understanding Wingrave. But in this production there’s also the sense that among the myriad portraits of military Wingraves that of Owen’s father; a gunner major killed at Alamein, is almost benevolent; even comprehending.
It’s interesting too to compare the intense malevolence of the scenes at Paramore with the rather beautiful, reflective scenes set in London. There’s very evocative high contrast footage of the Guards and Household Cavalry as well as various military monuments.
I found watching this again to be a very worthwhile exercise though I think I enjoyed it less than first time up. The only competition is the original 1971 TV broadcast so those interested in a major, but little performed, Britten work probably need to see this. My original 2011 review is here and there’s a more recent and very useful piece by Lucy of Opera Obsession here. (note – my Kultur edition appears to be normal 16:9 while Lucy reports a not quite 4:3 picture on the Euroarts edition).