REVIEW: Britten's Owen Wingrave Finally Haunts New York
May 9, 2019
By Brian Taylor
The little OPERA theatre of ny is presenting, remarkably, the New York stage premiere of Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave. Long overdue, in the black box space at GK Arts Center in DUMBO, it’s a world-class production conducted by Richard Cordova, and directed by Philip Shneiderman.
Britten composed some of the greatest operas of the twentieth century. Peter Grimes and Gloriana are grand in scale, while others, The Rape of Lucretia and The Turn of the Screw are intimate and economical. Owen Wingrave, based on a Henry James short story (like The Turn of the Screw), had elements of both when it premiered on BBC television in 1971. Commissioned as an opera for TV, the original broadcast was ambitious, at least by today’s standards, employing an orchestra of forty-six. In 2007, the Royal Opera Covent Garden presented a scaled down orchestration by David Matthews, Britten’s former assistant and biographer; that is the version performed here, with a top notch collection of instrumentalists positioned stage right of the simple, effective set.
Written at the height of the Vietnam War, Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper found in the James story both a vehicle to express their pacifist ideals, and one that would comfortably inhabit the medium of television. Owen (played on Thursday night and again Saturday by Robert Balonek; Michael Weyandt alternates in the role) is a student in military school, hailing from a family with a long military tradition. The tale begins as he announces his decision to quit school and give up the army.
This does not sit well with his Napoleon-idolizing teacher, Spencer Coyle (Matthew Curran), nor the haughty Wingrave family, especially his judgmental aunt, Jane Wingrave (soprano Emily Pulley). Back at their country estate, Paramore, rattling with skeletons in its closet, much hand-wringing ensues. How could our boy not embrace the glory of dying in battle? Even Kate (Katherine Pracht), his female love interest, has bought into the Wingraves’ notion of what makes a man, and dares him to sleep a night in the dreaded, haunted room to demonstrate his lack of cowardice. He ascends the stairs with the resignation of a soldier going off to war. Owen leaves the room a corpse, apparently assassinated by the ghosts of his ancestors.
Is it a parable about how older men in their pride create wars, then send their young men off to die fighting them? There’s irony in the fact that Owen fearlessly faces his family’s hostility to his decision to live his convictions. He is disinherited, and in Victorian parlance, ages prematurely as a result of the stress. It’s easy to see how Owen’s pacifism can be interpreted as a metaphor for LGBTQ acceptance.
Britten’s score is a marvel of psychological tone painting. The inner lives of the characters — their emotions, dreams, and anxieties — are dramatized in the orchestra. No composer does this more vividly. Owen’s so-called “Peace Aria,” a manifesto about how “peace is not silent,” is the evening’s emotional apex. Britten sets Owen’s soliloquy atop an effervescent accompaniment, a miracle of orchestration that glows even hotter in this expertly played reduction.
Josh Smith, scenic and lighting designer ingeniously mimics the ways our eyes follow a story in images. In projections by Alex Basco Koch we are haunted by creepy oil paintings of Owen’s hallowed ancestors, and feel the oppressive weight of their legacy. Spotlights focus our eyes on characters ready for their close-ups; the singing is up to the task all around. Balonek is a noble Owen, his rock-solid baritone coming from a place of strong conviction, each phrase carefully polished.
In the James story, a homoerotic subtext infuses Owen’s friendship with classmate Lechmere. In this staging, at least, that doesn’t seem as relevant to Britten’s adaptation, but as Lechmere, tenor Bernard Holcomb is given a lot to do with his open, vibrant instrument. Rufus Müller brought gravitas to the role of the elderly Sir Philip Wingrave, doyen of the family.
If the opera has a problem, it’s that we feel sorry for poor Owen and dislike most of the other characters. The largely unsympathetic Kate was three-dimensional as depicted by Pracht, who boasts a grounded and soaring mezzo-soprano, and clear crisp diction. Still, I wished that supertitles had been provided — not every word in the evening came across. But I could hardly hope for an all-around better production of this operatic curiosity.
Sat May 11 and Sun May 12