Asides, dissolves and close-ups ... TV takes to the stage

OPERA
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The black sheep of the Wingrave family, the black sheep among Britten operas. How good is Owen Wingrave? Britten may have denied that its conception as a television opera (a medium he despised) in any way inhibited its relationship with the stage. But, true professional that he was, there's no question that he undertook the commission mindful of the possibilities of television, mindful of an audience who would first perceive it through a lens darkly. Consider the high incident of "soliloquy" and "aside", private thoughts, private passions: the after-dinner scene with its temporary cessation of hostilities as "the camera" moves from one close-up to the next in a who's-thinking-what assessment of the situation so far. Or that masterful "dissolve" from the Prologue to Scene One, Act Two where "The Ballad of the Wingraves" slips mid-phrase from folksong into dialogue. Or the general tone of the piece - a more conversational, parlando style. It's the orchestra (tautly directed here by Ivor Bolton) that tells the tales, its tunes of glory tossed back and forth in agitated, percussive ostinati shot through with a plethora of fanfares and tiny tattoos.

But something is awry. Owen Wingrave plays like a conscientious objection. As drama, it's all subplot until Act Two. Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper do such a good job dehumanising the stuffy, pig-headed mediocrity of the English military establishment that they leave themselves and us with little or nothing to relate to. Until, that is, Owen finally proclaims, "In peace I have found my image." That monologue - marvellously, resolutely, delivered here by Gerald Finley - is the scene on which the whole opera turns. It is Owen's and Britten's liberation, cascades of tuned percussion and consonant wind chordings opening up magic casements from Paramore, the family's gloomy country seat on to the free world beyond. But it's a long time coming.

Robin Phillips' Glyndebourne touring production (developed for the main festival by Daniel Dooner) feels - rather like the opera - curiously second- hand. Hisham Ali's designs serve well enough. Paramore is skeletal, without walls, without substance, but a prison none the less. The living and the dead are one - extinct - the ground beneath them forever shifting (the inevitable revolve), their ghostly images fleetingly caught behind transparent picture frames. An excellent cast do their level best to flesh them out, Eiddwen Harrhy (Miss Wingrave) is the family's bloodthirsty cheerleader, her manner as intimidating as her chest voice. Ann Taylor's Kate is almost too spirited to have been so easily led. And there is a real glimmer of compassion in the playing of the Coyles: Vivian Tierney is her usual committed self and Steven Page manages very convincingly the duality of his role - that of militarist and humanist. His last goodnight to Owen is a genuinely touching benediction. In the production's most telling moment, Owen is symbolically, ritualistically, stripped of his military uniform and returned to civvies while the family around him voice their disgust. Disinheritance can surely not come a moment too soon. Conscientious objection? Conscientious, yes, but not entirely accomplished.

Which could never be said of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, a heartbreaking thoroughbred masterpiece currently returned to Covent Garden in Trevor Nunn's eminently "operatic" staging. We are once more in the eye of Ostrovsky's storm, Maria Bjornson's thrilling set merging earth, sky and water in a maelstrom of emotion. This is Kat'a's world, where base reality collides with dreams. Real rain falls here, real horses pound the dirt tracks, but the spirit is hurled aloft. Bernard Haitink has the pulse - or should I say the palpitation - of this most febrile score. It is, in truth, painfully exposed, every bar, and that's a tough call for an orchestra already shell- shocked from the current run of Elektra performances. A precarious intensity, then, but all part of the effect. Eva Jenis is the marvellous new Kat'a (Elena Prokina returns for two performances on 4 and 6 June), the kind of highly strung singer (a voice and body full of yearning) that takes the music further than you ever expect. And the young German mezzo Nadja Michael makes a really striking debut in the too often invisible role of Varvara. She's special. We'll be hearing a lot more of her.

Edward Seckerson

Comments