Owen Wingrave, Aldeburgh Festival, opera review: 'Brilliant pianism'

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Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave has always been regarded as problematic. Composed for television in 1969, it drew its pacifist inspiration from Britten’s experiences as a conscientious objector in 1942, and from the peace movement provoked by the Vietnam war.

Neil Bartlett has now brought his own pacifist agenda to bear: in a year when the British media are saturated by jingoistic red-poppy nostalgia, he accepted the invitation to direct Owen Wingrave because he wanted to scrutinise this pervasive orthodoxy.

Based on a Henry James novella, the plot concerns an upper-crust English family whose males have all served in the army; the plot is sprung when Owen Wingrave, its last surviving heir, provokes apoplexy by his refusal to join up. In Bartlett’s view it’s ‘the fate of an English boy to be bullied by the twisted value system into which he is born’. And in this story, which is peopled with the ghosts of the past, bullied to death: as this production makes clear, at the heart of this opera is a locked room containing a pairing to be found time and again in Britten’s oeuvre – a brutal adult and a murdered child (think of Claggart and Billy Budd, or Peter Grimes and his apprentice).

Bartlett and his conductor Mark Wigglesworth stress the fact that everything in this opera happens in close-up, and David Matthews’s reduction of the orchestral score gives it the intimate force of a chamber work. So why, given that the casting is exceptionally strong, does the first act fail to grip? Partly because Bartlett bludgeons us relentlessly with his hatred of the army, having a uniformed posse constantly posturing in the wings; but also because - by encouraging his singers to stand and deliver - he has accentuated the way the characters harangue each other. Under Wigglesworth’s direction the pit is alive with bewitching effects, but the angular austerity of the vocal writing freezes the stage. 

Things loosen up as the second act winds to its spooky denouement. Tenor James Way’s delivery of the folk ballad is ravishing, and its delicate staging – with boys’ voices and a muted trumpet half-heard offstage – permits a moment of quintessential Britten magic. Ross Ramgobin heroically incarnates the doomed hero, while Jonathan Summers, as his tutor Coyle, prowls the stage with thunderous authority. By the end, Bartlett’s intention – to portray a society locked in the prison of its own life-denying ideology – has been powerfully vindicated.

The following night’s choral event took us back to the juvenile excesses of the Sixties, as the a cappella group Exaudi sang Antoine Brumel’s sublime ‘Earthquake Mass’ with progressively deafening electronic accompaniment representing an aural simulation of a quake. The earplugs handed out at the door seemed to suggest that even the management had belatedly realised this was not a frightfully clever idea.

Meanwhile the standard of pianism at Aldeburgh remains stratospherically high. Richard Goode’s recital of Janacek, Schumann, and Debussy bore his customary oracular stamp, while Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich, and Nenad Lecic worked two-keyboard wonders with Debussy’s En blanc et noir, Ravel’s La valse, and Messiaen’s towering Visions de l’Amen.

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