Britten’s Cautionary Tale, Operatic Posturing Excised

United StatesUnited States  Britten, Owen Wingrave: Soloists of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Kenneth Shaw (stage director), Johannes Müller-Stosch (conductor), CCM Concert Hall, Cincinnati, OH. 22.11.2013 (RDA)

“Peace is not lazy but vigilant…only in peace can I be free. Peace is not won by your wars…” sings the title character of Britten’s Owen Wingrave, now on stage at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. The immaculate production, in which musical and dramatic values share center stage with a bright young cast, is under the firm guidance of stage director Kenneth Shaw and music director Johannes Müller-Stosch.

For centuries England was a country from which wars of expansion were waged abroad, ignominiously lost and brutally won, all in a futile effort to export British Empire in the guise of Christianity and civilization. Britten’s small canvas of a chamber opera actually paints a much larger dramatic mural on which we see a reflection of our own growing intolerance at home, and bellicosity abroad.

Director Shaw, maestro Müller-Stosch, and designers Gabriel Firestone (scenery), Mark C. Williams (lighting), and Caroline Spitzer (costumes) have mounted a strong and streamlined production, lit by the bright performances of a youthful troupe. Christina Kerstan (as Miss Wingrave), Cindy Candelaria-Pieve (Mrs. Coyle), Jordan Stadvec (Mrs. Julian), and Jason Weisinger (General Wingrave) are convincingly aged by wig and makeup designer Jillian Floyd.  Past the layers of grease paint and hair extensions, their performances shine with authenticity and a fastidious attention to the fine details of period acting, posture, body language, and the manners and mannerisms of the high-born. The four of them and baritone Tyler Alessi sing with distinction the often declamatory and jagged vocal lines Britten provides. There are two firm hands behind this high-level work: those of Shaw and Müller-Stosch, both eliciting performances from these young men and women with operatic posturing completely excised.

Owen Wingrave was written for television, even though Britten was not all that sure of the viability of opera for the medium, but the 1969 BBC made-for-television film of Peter Grimes convinced him otherwise. In Peter Grimes’ epic story a town becomes the antagonist to the central character; in the microcosm of Owen Wingrave, family becomes the nemesis of the central character. And there is nothing better than the small screen to portray microcosmic events with great consequences.

At a military school, Coyle (the sonorous baritone Tyler Alessi) is instructing Owen (the young and gifted baritone Simon Barrad) and his schoolmate Lechmere (the fine tenor Stephen Carroll) on the arts of warfare. Owen tells them of his disdain for war and of his dread of its horrors. Soon the talk about Owen’s pacifism involves family and friends. Over dinner, the family berates Owen, abruptly leaving him alone at the table. A ballad singer—the unseen but very vocally present Chris Bozeka—relates a past family episode in which one of the Wingrave boys refused to fight another, and was taken by his father into a room where he was brutally beaten and killed. Later, the father was found mysteriously dead in the same room.

Owen is disinherited by his grandfather. Kate, sung by the lovely mezzo-soprano Jessie Shulman, accuses Owen of cowardice, and goads him into sleeping in the haunted room. Moments later her cries for help are heard and the family and friends rush towards the sound, only to discover the dead body of Owen, lying on the floor of the presumably haunted room.

Like The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave is based on a ghost story by Henry James. Yet even though both of Britten’s adaptations of James’ short stories about things that go bump in the night, they are really about human affairs in the light of day. The libretto of Owen Wingrave is an expression of Britten’s own pacifism, and very cryptically about his sexual identity. The opera post-dates Peter Grimes and pre-dates Death in Venice, both of which also deal with lonely men whose difference leads to tragic results.

The themes of the Henry James story are expanded by Britten’s librettist, Mifamwy Piper into much more than a mere ghost story about a boy who would not go to war. Britten’s life-long struggles with wartime and post-war England—a nation that abhorred both his homosexuality and his anti-war beliefs—is reflected in the story of a boy “who must be straightened” and is then abandoned by family and friends. Phantoms in a haunted house—as well as phantoms of the mind—can both harm and change the course of events in life, as they do in this tightly-knit yarn about intolerance of the other, be they gays or pacifists or the foreigners the British of the Raj were fond of killing for the sake of Empire.

Art imitates life. Hardly an evening goes by that we don’t see yet another report about wars abroad and the abuse of the few by the many here at home. Let Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera serve as a cautionary tale.

Rafael de Acha


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