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Review: Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave, English Touring Opera

Duncan Heining says all credit to the English Touring Opera for programming this troubling and challenging work during the centenary of the "the war to end all wars".

Owen Wingrave

Owen Wingrave, English Touring Opera, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival, Friday 13th June 2014.

Benjamin Britten began composing his penultimate opera Owen Wingrave in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. It received its première at Snape Maltings in November 1970 and was broadcast by the BBC in May of the following year. Britten acknowledged at the time that the play was in part inspired by the conflict in South East Asia but it was always clear that its themes and motivations also reflected Britten’s own personal pacifism and anti-militarism. All credit then to director Neil Bartlett and the English Touring Opera for programming this troubling and challenging work during the centenary of the outbreak of ‘the war to end all wars.’

On the face of it, the choice of Henry James’s 19th-century novella as the basis for Myfanwy Piper’s original libretto was an odd one, one almost as strange as the opera itself. It is, after all, a ghost story. However, like James’ Turn of the Screw which had provided Britten and Piper with the source for another major composition in 1954, it is the ambiguity of the narrative which seems to have attracted the composer. Britten’s message – and Piper’s too – is a brave but lonely one. Ultimately, it says that the choice between violence and non-violence, between war and peace rests with the individual. The issue of who determines that choice is, for Britten, a moral rather than political issue. This is a view with which many may disagree but it does reflect the integrity of Britten’s own position and raises questions about how individual commitment might be transformed into collective action for peace.

Owen Wingrave comes from a family with a ‘proud’ military history, who is studying to become an officer himself. His ‘refusal’ of that career comes early in the play and provides the dynamic for all subsequent events and is met with immediate and angry opposition from his tutor, his closest friend and later his grandfather, aunt, fiancée and her mother. To his tutor’s statements that “The conduct of war is a science” and “The leading of men is an art”, Wingrave responds “You forget you are the enemy too.” It is not just tradition, that Wingrave rejects but the entire value system that underpins militarism. Throughout the opera the ghosts of dead soldiers haunt the stage, representing perhaps Owen’s ‘old Lie’ – “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.”

With his return to the family home, a house in that great Gothic tradition of the House of Usher, Northanger Abbey and Manderley, the pressure builds upon Wingrave. The building has its own ghost – a small boy murdered by his father for his ‘refusal’ to fight another boy in a playground squabble. Of all the ghosts that haunt the hero, it is the boy - innocence drowned – who most disturbs Wingrave in the knowledge that he (and any one of us) might at any moment shift from ‘victim’ to ‘bully.’ At the heart of the house, there is a room and it is here that the boy was killed. No-one who has slept in that room has survived the night and at the end, taunted and humiliated by his bride-to-be, Wingrave surrenders to his terror to prove his manhood and his courage. He enters the room but never leaves it alive.

Is this last conceit perhaps a recognition that ultimately the lone individual can only surrender to their conscience and that collective responses alone can transform reality? I, actually, think this would be a step too far. Britten and his partner Peter Pears left the United Kingdom for the USA during the Second World War and were roundly criticised for doing so and for ‘refusing’ to aid the war effort, even as pacifists. In a way, Owen Wingrave seems to resonate with this personal experience. More than that the play seems to suggest the pessimistic conclusion that the integrity of individual choice may inevitably require an ultimate sacrifice.

All of this would mean little, would be too didactic, too ‘black and white’ were it not for the sheer beauty of the music and the high drama of its theatrical staging and performance. True, the score is often fragmentary punctuated by staccato accents contrasting with brief legato melodies - the influence upon the composer of twelve-tone, serialist techniques is well-documented. But Owen Wingravealso reveals Britten’s ability to play successfully with different musical genres in the context of a single work. For example, the use of two percussionists adds an almost Gamelan-like aspect to certain passages, while elsewhere Britten draws upon jazz and even film music. There is one particularly beautiful section in the second act that recalls Bernstein – both Leonard and Elmer and, ironically, Britten saves some of the most gorgeous, sumptuous orchestral scoring for the second act where the hero meets his tragic end. All of this was realised some thirty-nine years after its première to remarkable effect on this occasion by the members of a chamber ensemble drawn from the Britten-Pears Orchestra.

Both staging and direction, by Neil Bartlett and set designer Simon Daw, ensured that the tension and power of the piece do not for one second diminish . The pace was quite perfect with moments of quiet reflection and dark brooding spilling over into uncontrollable anger. Violence is never far from the surface and neither the play nor the English Touring Opera shrink from that disquieting conclusion – the terror lies within the knowledge of our own potential for aggression. As for the voices – and acting – Ross Ramgobin as Owen Wingrave was a revelation, revealing in his phrasing and tone of voice, his posture and facial expression the dilemma facing his character. As for his aunt, played by Susan Bullock, her ability to convey contempt in a glance or a syllable is enough to wither stone. Perhaps the most beautiful and folk-inflected vocal performance, however, came from James Way, who played both the nurse of Wingrave’s bellicose grandfather (a frightening, splenetic Richard Berkeley-Steele) and The Ballad Singer. But then again, so fine were the performances that it seems unfair to single out individuals from this exceptional cast.

The capacity of the state to wage war depends on myth and upon our ability to swallow such lies. One such myth is that resisting war is always seen by militaristic societies as ignoble. Surrendering to it, on the other hand, speaks of the highest moral character. Britten understood this only too well and, ambiguously perhaps but with surgical precision, he dissects that myth in Owen Wingrave.

Complete performance of Owen Wingrave, BBC TV, 1971

Source: No Glory in War