Lorin Maazel will hopefully get around to staging Owen Wingrave at the Châteauville Foundation eventually: it is one of the Britten operas I have yet to see on stage. A recent film version came under review on DVD last year (the only one available on DVD), and the only recording available was the remastered one conducted by Britten himself. That is, until Richard Hickox released this new 2-CD set as the latest in his fine series of Britten operas on the Chandos label. Owen Wingrave was conceived for television broadcast in 1971, and the libretto often reads in a way that presumes the medium of television rather than the stage, which explains at least part of its subsequent neglect.
Britten, Owen Wingrave, P. Coleman-Wright, J. Watson, R. Leggate, City of London Sinfonia, R. Hickox
(released June 24, 2008)
Chandos CHAN 10473(2)
Myfanwy Piper adapted the libretto from a short story by Henry James, published in 1893. The plot resonated strongly with Britten's own pacifist convictions, as it concerns the son of a military family who decides to break the cycle and not take up a career in the army. The specter of father-son conflict hovers over the family estate, Paramore, in the legend of an ancestor who angrily killed his son because the boy refused to act with violence. That Owen's decision will mean his doom seems clear from the Ballad of Paramore, which the boys' chorus sings to open the second act ("Trumpet blow, trumpet blow, / Paramore shall welcome woe"). In fact, the house itself is haunted by that father and son: in Act I, scene 4, the women in the house sing about Owen's impending arrival, "The very house seems to groan. Surely, when he comes he will listen to the house."
The score is vivid and ethereally beautiful, with percussive harp and string effects and gamelan-like percussion predominant. Chamber-ensemble assortments of winds and solo strings make it more like a subtle watercolor than a grand oil canvas. Much of the detail is hard to pick up via recording, making a live performance in a small theater probably the best place to experience it. The work is often described as a failure, and it is true that, as one of Britten's last operas, many themes seem to recycle bits from previous operas (snatches from Rape of Lucretia, Turn of the Screw stand out to my ears). What this opera lacks is some gripping aria moments, as found in most of the great Britten operas. Even Owen's big monologue in the second act ("Now you may save your scornful looks"), although it has a promising, tingly accompaniment and some dramatic peaks, falls flat. Much of Owen is dry dialogue, in that sort of Britten recitative that is found, in mostly undistinguishable form, in most of his operas.
In a podcast interview this summer, conductor Richard Hickox spoke about this recording project. Hickox said he prefers to take long takes when recording, after meticulous rehearsal and, preferably, a concert performance (which he had with Owen Wingrave). While admitting that the opera is "elusive," Hickox says that it "repays repeated hearings." It certainly does in this fine reading by the City of London Sinfonia, the orchestra founded by Hickox, who sound in top form, always responsive to the profound understanding of Hickox, who is likely today's leading Britten conductor. The only flaw, at least in my copy, is a minor tracking error in the last track of the first disc, resulting in several seconds of silence (not consistently the same ones, but generally around 8:20).
Musical Criticism (Dominic McHugh)
The Guardian (Andrew Clements)
Hickox put together a good cast, beginning with the warm baritone of Peter Coleman-Wright as Owen and the rougher one of Alan Opie as Spencer Coyle, the concerned teacher of the military academy. The female voices go deeper, from the imperious Elizabeth Connell as Owen's aunt, to the maternal Janice Watson as Mrs Coyle (the teacher's caring wife), to the shrewish Pamela Helen Stephen as Kate, who dares Owen to the action that leads to his death. The cast, without major stars, excels especially in the ensemble numbers, of which this opera has several fine examples. Ultimately, however, the work's flaws limit this recording's appeal. Hickox says that his next project in the Britten series for Chandos will be Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera (set for February 2009), which will likely reach a wider audience.