Macabre Ambiguity in Aldeburgh’s Owen Wingrave

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Owen Wingrave: Aldeburgh Festival Soloists, Britten-Pears Orchestra, Choristers of Chelmsford Cathedral/ Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, 15.6.2014. (CS)

Owen Wingrave -Benjamin Britten - Photo Robert Workman
Owen Wingrave (c) Robert Workman

Owen Wingrave – Ross Ramgobin
Spencer Coyle – Jonathan Summers
Lechmere – Isaiah Bell
Miss Wingrave – Susan Bullock
Mrs Coyle – Samantha Crawford
Mrs Julian – Janis Kelly
Kate Julian – Catherine Backhouse
General Sir Philip Wingrave – Richard Berkeley-Steele
Ballad Singer – James Way

Neil Bartlett – director
Simon Daw – set designer
Sue Willmington – costume designer
Ian Scott – lighting designer
Struan Leslie – choreographer

In Owen Wingrave, as in so many of Britten’s operas, there are two simultaneous, interlocking stories.  First, there is the tragic ‘public’ tale of Owen Wingrave, the son of a long line of military heroes.  As the Henry James story from which the libretto is derived relates, Owen is being coached for entry into Sandhurst and a career as a soldier but decides that war is ‘barbaric’ and refuses to continue his army training.  The Wingrave clan and other acquaintances gather at the family home with a view to persuading him to change his mind.  The old house has a macabre history, including a room in which a former Wingrave died after killing a young boy.  Owen continues to resist their entreaties, taunts and derision.  Kate Julian, an opinionated young woman who expects to marry Owen, accuses him of cowardice; whereupon he offers to spend the night in the room.  She locks him in, and the next morning he is found dead on the same spot as his ancestor.

But, behind this ostensibly straightforward tale of youthful rebellion – the defiance by a young idealist of a familial clan with a fierce loyalty to the traditions of military duty, public sacrifice and death in conflict – lies a network of half-illuminated ideas and unanswered questions.  What has happened in the locked room?  And, why has Owen died?  In, as James put it, ‘purging the house of the beastly legend’, why has Owen been defeated by that ghost?  What are the literal and spiritual connections between Owen and the dead boy?

Thus, the public tale sits uncomfortably alongside the private fight against disquieting revenants, and the ending struggles to satisfyingly serve them both.  Which story should a director tell or emphasise?  In this Aldeburgh Festival production, Neil Bartlett attempts to give equal weight to both: first, the tale of pacifist resistance against a clique of grotesques and, second, that of, as Owen sings, ‘the bully and the boy’: ‘I cannot forget them … stalking their way to the room which saw their deaths … Walking, walking – these two: the old man and the boy, for ever in each other’s company’.  But, while his interpretation has many expressive and suggestive moments, Bartlett does not crack the nut of ambiguity that lies at the heart of the opera.

Commissioned for BBC television in 1969, Owen Wingrave incorporates many cinematic devices – intercutting and montage, for example – which present a challenge to the opera director.  Moreover, the small dimensions of the television screen facilitate the establishment of a suffocating, oppressive tension which is difficult to re-create in the opera house, and especially on the wide, open stage of Snape Maltings.  Bartlett and his designer, Simon Daw, opt for simplicity: movable panels economically evoke by turns a map-strewn Sandhurst training room, the fading flock-wallpaper of a provincial drawing room, and the imposing panels of the Wingraves’ ancestral stately home, Paramore.

This is a neat practical device, but it means that Ian Scott’s lighting design has a lot of responsibility for articulating the drama, and it does not always bear the weight.  There are some striking touches, though, as when the accusatory horizontal cross glares – a metaphor for the scornful looks of the family portraits – became vertical beams swathing Owen’s ‘peace aria’ in transfiguring white illumination.  Similarly, the red glower which illuminates the formal evening meal in the Wingraves’ dining room evocatively suggests both the violence of war and the heat of passion.   At the climax of the work, the shifting panels are swivelled to form a four-sided ‘locked room’ into which Owen enters boldly; when theatrically rent apart, they reveal the defiant young man’s corpse bathed in a white sacrificial gleam.  But, while the bare black stage is suitably threatening, the ‘open-ness’ of the stage space seems ill-suited to a work in which small, confined rooms and closets house secrets and torments.

In the original production, after the pounding chords which open the Prologue, the overbearing portraits in the Wingrave ancestral gallery were illuminated in succession.  Here, Bartlett by implication brings the portraits to life, assembling a silent chorus, some in civvies and others attired in the uniform of a modern-day parachute regiment – reminding us perhaps of the aptness of a new Owen Wingrave production in a year in which we commemorate the centenary of WW1.

Yet, these ancestral ‘ghosts’ have too much ‘presence’.  Henry James’s view, expressed in the Preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw, was that ‘Recorded and attested ghosts are … as little expressive, as little dramatic, above all, as little continuous and conscious and responsive, as is consistent with their taking the trouble – … to appear at all.’  (Interestingly, Myfanwy Piper’s notebooks also remark the dangers of over-realism: ‘the [televisual] technique should be used, not to create ghostly appearances, making figures walk out of frames etc. but simply to draw attention to the hallucinatory powers of a heightened imagination’.)   They do serve a useful practical purpose though – much like Alfonso’s troupe of freaks in Phelim McDermott’s recent Così fan tutte at ENO – sliding panels, rearranging props, even serving drinks during the Wingraves’ evening meal.

And, the posse of familial oppressors certainly do accentuate the menace and power of the filial duty which rests on Owen’s shoulders.  When Owen’s anger rises in an early scene with Lechmere, in which the latter tells him he is wrong to reject the glory of war, Owen is shocked by his own physical aggression which he sees mirrored by the raised fists of the spirits lurking in the shadows.  This is realistic: it shows that Owen is a military man – Owen’s dismissal of all the great generals, ‘I’d hang the lot’, is hardly the language of the pacifist – and that he has an inner strength.  Lines such as Coyle’s ‘Oh my dear boy, the pity is you are a fighter’ do highlight the military aspect of Owen’s character; but, in the title role, Ross Ramgobin seem at times too easily defeated, a victim rather than one whose convictions give him spirit.

Moreover, in the very first image we see, the ancestral mob are implicated in the opera’s second, more elusive, narrative – as the uniformed pack strike poses of intimidation and belligerence, a young boy dressed in striped pyjamas runs onto the stage, then flees in fear; the inference of child abuse is later made explicit during the ballad song which opens Act 2, as several pyjama-clad boys are dragged away by soldiers removing their belts.  In this way, the ballad, which initiates a marked shift to the private world of Owen’s psychological suffering and to a very different musical world, emphasises the historical perspective by which the destruction of innocence can be seen as part of a recurring pattern at Paramore.

Amid these dark deeds and inferences, Jonathan Summers was imperious of voice and manner as Spencer Coyle, Owen’s military instructor.  A striking presence whenever he was on stage, Summers might however have modulated his colour more pronouncedly in the latter stages, when Coyle finds himself increasingly disturbed by his own attraction to his protégé’s ideals of peace.  As Mrs Coyle, Samantha Crawford’s clear, graceful soprano did provide a warm, compassionate counter-hue to her husband’s assertiveness, and Crawford’s characterisation was convincing and rounded – no mean feat in an opera where all too easily the characters can slip into stereotype.

The pitiless Wingrave clan offer little to engage our sympathies, but Susan Bullock was notable as the soulless Miss Wingrave, her melodic lines always musically phrased even if their sentiments were unappealing. 

Baritone Russ Ramgobin displayed much vocal elegance in the title role and evoked considerable pathos, but he perhaps lacked some of the steeliness which Owen must possess to even consider daring to defy his family.  The Act 2 ‘peace aria’ was beautifully sung, but a greater diversity of colour is required if it is to assume its pivotal place in the drama; it is here that Owen is the most eloquently and forcefully articulates his retaliation against all forms of oppression, and Ramgobin needed a touch more lyrical power.

Tenor James Way had the latter in plenty; first appearing as Sir Phillip’s nurse, he removed his white medical garb and held the concert hall transfixed as he sang the ballad of the Wingrave boy ‘born to kill his foe’, his beautifully shaped melody complemented by the crystalline strains of off-stage choristers.

It is hard to find any sympathetic dimension to Kate Julien, but mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse sang the haughty young woman’s lines with a full, well-centred tone.  Taking the part sung by Peter Pears in the original production, Richard Berkeley-Steele was commanding as the patriarchal tyrant, Sir Philip Wingrave, his mellifluous tenor effectively complemented by a convincing physical representation, revealing the enduring domination of the ailing despot.  In the minor roles of Lechmere, Owen’s fellow student, and the Wingraves’ guest Miss Julien, Isaiah Bell and Janis Kelly respectively completed the fine cast.

Mark Wigglesworth impressed in the pit, leading members of the Britten-Pears Orchestra in a searing dramatic performance of David Matthew’s new chamber adaptation of Britten score.   Britten’s distinctive musical palette is emphasised by Matthew’s 14-player reduction, the strident rhythms, dissonance and angularity powerfully articulating the claustrophobic oppression of the Wingraves’ militarism.  Wigglesworth intelligently revealed the underlying musico-dramatic structure, created unceasing momentum and brought forth the musical details allowing the score to tell the tale; there was some wonderfully dynamic ensemble and solo playing.

So, Bartlett’s Owen Wingrave confirms that the opera offers yet another depiction of the destructiveness, and self-destructiveness, of the struggle between individuality and conformity.  But, the director doesn’t provide any answers to the conundrum of why Owen must – or feels he must – make a personal sacrifice in order to lay the disturbed, wandering spirits of the past to rest.  In James’s short story we learn of another family secret: that the Wingraves have incarcerated Owen’s elder brother in a lunatic asylum.  Does the family have a habit of banishing its guilty secrets to locked chambers?

But, Bartlett does offer an arresting final gesture.  In the closing bars, Kate stands over Owen’s lifeless form as the music of the ballad is reprised; as Wingraves past and present stand in salute, the balladeer hesitates and then declines to join them.  His ballad is an epitaph to all Wingrave victims.

Claire Seymour

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