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Opera on DVD: Owen Wingrave

Available at Amazon:
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Benjamin Britten, Owen Wingrave, G. Finley, P. Savidge, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, K. Nagano, directed by M. Williams
(released February 22, 2005)

available at Amazon
Benjamin Britten, Owen Wingrave, in box set of Britten operas conducted by Britten (vol. 1, with Albert Herring, Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes)
(released in 2004)
Owen Wingrave is one of the Britten operas I have never seen staged. It does get staged from time to time (just last month by the Royal Opera, for example), although Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, conceived the work first for television broadcast in 1971 and then for the stage. This film version by Margaret Williams was also made for television, in 2001, and has recently been released on DVD. The narrative comes from a short story of the same title, by Henry James (completed 1892-93), for which you must at least take a quick glance at this incredible hypertext version by Adrian Dover at The Ladder. The opera preserves the short story's time frame, the 1890s, although Britten was probably drawn to the story because of his own experience as a pacifist, facing considerable public criticism during World War II, at a time when public opinion had turned again the Vietnam War. In her film, Williams updates the stories to the 1950s, with an abundance of visual references to monuments to the veterans of the two World Wars.

Williams makes a nice combination of actual dialogue, with characters singing on screen, with inner monologue, in which we hear the singers in voice-over. The medium of film allows for an interesting incorporation of flashbacks to Owen's childhood, too. Sometimes, Williams goes for shots that are too gimmicky (Janet Tovey was the cinematographer), as in the family ensemble, when members of the family come in and out of closeup, wagging their fingers at Owen. Just as often, Williams's eye creates gorgeous tableaux, like the three women of the family seated at table, cutting their meat, and berating Owen in rage. The location for the family manor, Paramore, brings home the wealth of Owen's family, with generations of soldier-ancestors glowering from painted portraits on the Gothic manor walls. When Owen returns to the house, he sings (in voice-over), "And now to face them, all of them, / The living and the dead."

Reviews of Royal Opera Production, 2007:

Anna Picard (The Independent, April 29)

Anthony Holden (The Observer, April 29)

Andrew Clark (Financial Times, April 27)

Warwick Thompson (Bloomberg News, April 25)

Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph, April 25)

Dominic McHugh (The Opera Critic, April 25)

The Times (April 25)
The gorgeous, brooding score features haunting celesta and often percussively treated strings. It is cut from the same cloth as Britten's earlier scores: in particular, we hear a repeated-note motif quite similar to "Down with the Etruscans/Rome's for the Romans" theme in The Rape of Lucretia. It is played beautifully by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, under Kent Nagano. The choristers of Westminster Cathedral give just the right wistful background to the Ballad of Paramore, in which Owen describes the legend of his ancestor who, in a room in the mansion now considered haunted, struck his son and killed him. The singers are all cast well by look, which is important in a film with numerous closeups. Most sing equally well, especially baritone Gerald Finley, who is a fine Owen, and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant as Kate Julian.

The opera is rather short, but the DVD is rounded out with a bonus that is almost as much of a draw as the main feature. The documentary Benjamin Britten: The Hidden Heart, directed by Teresa Griffiths, is an hour-long profile of Britten's relationship with tenor Peter Pears. There is little by way of new information, but the film clips of Britten and Pears are wonderful: Britten playing some of the sea music from Peter Grimes at the piano; Pears singing Grimes; Britten walking next to the young Queen Elizabeth II; Britten conducting and Pears singing at the premiere of the War Requiem.

Arthaus Musik DVD 100 372

Dudley Moore parody of Benjamin Britten/Peter Pears

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