Benjamin Britten’s 1970s opera of a young man’s struggle for possession of himself: a pacifist message is timely once again

Andrew Ashwin at the Kammeroper

Andrew Ashwin as Owen Wingrave at the Kammeroper, playing through June | Photo: Christian Husar

“In peace I have found my image, I have found myself,” Owen Wingrave exclaims at the climax of Benjamin Britten’s second-to-last opera. It’s a powerful aria, sung by British baritone Andrew Ashwin and the music for once leaves behind the darkness and overall oppressive atmosphere of the work.

This is a rare moment, though, as this sinister two-act work based on a short story by Henry James that tells of a young man’s struggle for possession of himself. Son of a military family, the young man chooses pacifism over the career his family expect, and so severs himself from his past with no clear idea of a future. Written during the Vietnam War, Owen Wingrave was commissioned by the BBC as a grand opera for television and broadcast in 1971. Since then, performances have been few.

The Wiener Kammeroper, a pioneer in lesser-known 20th century opera, premiered Owen Wingrave in Austria on May 23. Director Nicola Raab put on a timeless, though stylish and highly effective, production with musical director Daniel Hoyem-Cavazza conducting.

It had all the makings of a sensation.

The audience enters to an uncurtained stage set of a simple room with grey concrete-like walls, without doors or any interior. Owen Wingrave is sitting on the floor, above him hangs one of those concrete-like elements, a spotlight on the singer from within.

There is no clear reference to time in Anne-Marie Legenstein’s stage design – Britten originally had the late 19th century England in mind.

The opening orchestral prelude, dominated by violent and shrill trumpet calls and percussive fanfares – marked in the score as marziale (Italian for martial) – foreshadows musically the military Wingrave’s family envisions for him: To follow in his father’s footsteps, a military officer who died in battle.

Having lost both his parents, Wingrave has been brought up by his aunt, the strict and disciplined Miss Wingrave. Elegantly dressed in a dark-green long dress, powerful and expressively sung by Polish Soprano Ewa Biegas, she clearly shows who is in charge.

The opening scene is set at the residence of Spencer Coyle (baritone Craig Smith), a high-ranking military officer, in charge of the preparatory training for Wingrave and his friend Lechmere, a keen student of war, sung by Austrian tenor Paul Schweinester. As we witness Coyle’s analyses of legendary Napoleonic battles laid out with model soldiers on the floor. Troubled by doubts about the legitimacy of war, Owen, challenges Coyle.

The duet that follows between the two baritones – at first the overpowering conflict of the opera – also posed a musical challenge of writing two distinct parts in the same register, which is at least partially successful. Wingrave is outspoken and passionate of his convictions and thus appears in higher registers; Coyle retains a British reserve, less varied in tone color. The moral conflict of war and peace between these two characters is just a narrative diversion, however, as one realizes later – carefully crafted by the composer.

Coyle mistakes Wingrave’s sentiment as rebellion and hopes the young man will come “to his senses.” Even he, though, was unprepared for the fanatic upholding of a military tradition by Owen’s family: “The Wingraves are soldiers,” his aunt insists. “They go when they are called.”

The challenge of staging Owen Wingrave lies within its conception for television. The fast pace of character and plot development – the whole opera runs about 110 minutes total – feels at times like watching a movie. The first act especially is a musical and emotional tour-de-force that turns the world at Paramore, the family estate, on its head, concluding at a show-down with guests at the dinner table in the end of Act I.

The stage is dark as all the characters except Wingrave enter through the doors at the back carrying a candelabra. All remain standing; as Spencer Coyle enters with his wife – charmingly portrayed with sensitivity by Japanese-born soprano Rika Shiratsuchi, the most lyrical of all characters. Mrs. Julian, widow and dependant of the Wingrave household also enters with her arrogant daughter Kate, pledged to Owen, played by Austrian singers, soprano Ingrid Habermann and mezzo-soprano Astrid Hofer, who seemed more like sisters. The characters line up, facing the audience: Owen’s grandfather, General Sir Philip Wingrave at the head, sung by British-born tenor Brian Galiford who appears rather youngish, though nevertheless ruthless in his stoic silence.

The sinister atmosphere intensified by the flickering white candles, concludes in the banning of Owen from the family, his conviction stronger than ever.

The second act follows en suite after minor changes on the stage, and encapsulates a more mystical element, which is instrumental in James’ Victorian ghost story text: that of a haunted room in the Wingrave house, where no one has slept since a heart broken ancestor  who had killed his own son was found dead in that very same room before the funeral.

Combining both acts musically and dramatically posed a specific challenge, as Stage Director Nicola Raab admits, and “one catalyst is the young boy, a mirror image of Owen, who will appear more often (in our production) than in the original.” So the interval between the two acts was scrapped, and the dramatic flow was not interrupted. It’s a lot for the audience to digest.

Act II also demonstrates the functional element of the stage design most effectively, as the grey concrete-like wall elements are moved on to the stage as bookshelves or closets; or changing location, supported by the subtle light design of Michael Hofer that explores the full spectrum of warm and cold colors.

After he found peace with himself, Owen is spurred by Kate to prove his worthiness by staying the night in the haunted room alone. And as he encourages her to lock the door – standing at the center of the stage fully upright, bathed in blurry blue light – the concrete-grey element is slowly lowered and Owen  is fully absorbed. How will his trial of courage end? The composer’s conclusion is abundantly direct.

This is Britten at his most challenging, and for the fine-tuned ear. Alongside with his monumental War Requiem (1963), Owen Wingrave carries a pacifist message of eternal peace. The Kammeroper surpassed itself in this production, reviving a little known

Britten’s work is as valid today as it was when it was first produced.


Jun. 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 16, 18, 19:30

Wiener Kammeroper

1., Fleischmarkt 24

(01) 512 01 00 – 77

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