Opera; Owen Wingrave Glyndebourne Touring Opera

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
All composers have their lame ducks, and Benjamin Britten's is an opera called Owen Wingrave. Written in 1971 for television and, like The Turn of the Screw, based on a ghost story by Henry James, it reached Covent Garden in 1973, then stopped. Aldeburgh tried a concert version two years ago, but Glyndebourne Touring Opera's new production is the first to be seen here since the premiere. The company has not revived a masterpiece, and should be praised for its courage in taking it on. GTO offers a sensitive restoration of a fragile object and a collector's chance to spot a rarity that should not be missed.

It's hard to say exactly where the faultlines occur. Despite a Gothic mixture of spooks, legends and ancient family portraits, there's too much pacifism, and something out of joint with the basic plot. Sung by William Dazeley, whose beautiful manners and fine, clear baritone made him the star of the show, Owen himself was projected as a real human being in spite of a libretto that can make him seem little more than a limp handshake. True, amid a swirl of exotic gamelan sounds in Act 2, nicely balanced by the GTO orchestra under Ivor Bolton's sure direction, Owen finds his inner self at last, singing of "Peace" in effulgent terms. But his mental journey to that point, as a hawk-turned-dove who stands out against his family's record of military service, never seems clearly shown in action.

Too often, instead, his role is that of passive victim, persecuted for his beliefs, yet without the discrete charm of Britten's other suffering heroes. He has doubts at Coyle's academy; he is disinherited; he is tormented by his bloody relations. Finally, with the discovery of peace and manhood comes the need for tragic action: he fatally sleeps in the haunted room as refutation of his family's disdain. Yet even then his motives are unheroic. He is simply bounced there on a spiteful dare from his girlfriend Kate, who is hardly a lover of truth and beauty.

Robin Phillips's production redeemed any shortcomings with a smart, uncluttered set that placed events at Paramore, the Wingraves' ancestral home, in the context of a broad staircase, rotating to offer endways and sideways views of Coyle's military crammer or Miss Wingrave's London lodgings. Not all the elements from the TV original were fully integrated. The sequence of brilliant and tattered flags, and the Horse Guards in disaster, made sense as figments of Owen's imagination. But it was surely a mistake to place the all-important ballad singer on stage in Act 2, breaking the sense of here-and-now established by Myfanwy Piper's cosy, naturalistic dialogue.

Spencer Coyle, the military teacher, is perhaps the work's most subtle role. Bass-baritone Steven Page brought depth and conviction to his Act 1 aria "Straight out of school they come to me" - Britten at his most intimate and responsive. Mrs Coyle, sung by Eiddwen Harrhy was blousy and fun, but the pair seemed like characters who'd strayed in from another opera.

n Further performances tomorrow and Saturday at Glyndebourne, nr Lewes, East Sussex (booking; 01273 813813); then touring to Southampton, Plymouth, Norwich, Oxford, Manchester and Woking