The more generous would say that Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera, “Owen Wingrave,” broadcast on television in 1971 at the time of the Vietnam war, is a difficult opera, especially when performed on stage. In a co-production with Academie de l’Opera national de Paris, Opera Collective Ireland work hard to address these difficulties in their current production of “Owen Wingrave” with some first class singing and excellent orchestration. Yet despite their working hard, this expressionist take on “Owen Wingrave” often ends up being hard work on too many occasions, as well as feeling more than a little dated at times.
With a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, based on a story by Henry James, “Owen Wingrave’s” central protagonist stands alone, bravely fighting family and friends for the sake of a principle. In a world where clothes make the man and everyone loves a man in uniform, the young Owen declares he is breaking with the family's military tradition and will not go to war. A position that might see him disinherited by his father and all family ties severed. Refusing to fight, even in the name of peace, is not a Wingrave option. Indeed, in the Wingrave family home there’s a haunted room where a Wingrave boy was killed, many years ago, for refusing to fight another boy. With neither his aunt, his father, his fiancé Kate, her mother, nor his former comrades in arms able to persuade Owen to repent of his ways, it might well end up a case of history repeating itself.
Throughout ”Owen Wingrave”, something of an uneasy relationship exists between music and libretto due, in part, to its original televised format. With Piper’s libretto built on the simple, dramatic conflict of ‘yes you will, no I won’t,’ particularly in the first act, it’s a preachy premise that’s far too restrictive dramatically, and far too simplistic ideologically. One that overstays it welcome, built around endless justifications, recriminations and moments of introspection repeated far longer than needed. Which only adds to the opera’s often ponderous pace. An uneasy tension exists within the music also, which often carries the lion’s share of emotional expression. An almost discordant, sixties, jazz-funk sound, percussively built in places, rests uneasily against a more conventional cinematic score reminiscent of Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter’s compositions for Universal’s horror movies. If it accentuates the opera's supernatural dimension, it also makes it feel particularly dated today
Attempting to address these issues director Tom Creed makes some strong, but not always successful choices. The decision to modernise, with contemporary costumes by Catherine Fay, doesn’t situate the action convincingly within “Wingrave’s” antiquated military values, reinforcing the dated feel. Granted, the need to address war is very much a contemporary concern, but resisting notions of family tradition, duty, and honour might have played convincingly pre-1918, but they are not arguments of today, and not in a UK of today. And Creed’s Wingrave is very much a modern, British affair with its Union Jack waving in the breeze.
Creed is not alone in making strong, but not always successful choices. A brave, yet curious set and lighting design by Aedín Cosgrove again sees “Owen Wingrave” drifting into the realm of Universal horror films, or German expressionism, with its aviary of taxidermist birds of prey casting dark shadows across the wall. A tall, overbearingly grey wall with a door, against which the dwarfed Wingrave pathetically loiters like a reprimanded child far too often, often saps the stage of what little energy it has. Lights soften this somewhat, particularly during the second act, but by then the mood has been firmly established.
Musically, the Irish Chamber Orchestra, under conductor Stephen Barlow, is exquisite, releasing the full richness of Britten’s often difficult score with great success. Yet acoustics prove to be often less than ideal for singing, with music overwhelming vocal clarity on too many occasions. Which is a pity, for baritones Benjamin Russell, Christopher Cull, tenors Peter O’Reilly and Andrew Boushell, along with sopranos Roisín Walsh, Rachel Croash, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond, produce some phenomenal moments, opening up avenues that suggest something sublime is about to follow, and often does.
If “Owen Wingrave’s” second half is much more satisfying, musically, dramatically, and theatrically, it’s not enough to bring it over to the win side of the sheet. But there are some winning moments. The folksong, beautifully performed by Andrew Boushell, sees something sublime occur once the action is removed from cinematic restrictions and allowed to breathe. Something that seems to inform both staging and lighting, with everything converging on a moment of beauty, hinting at what could have been. Indeed, despite it’s many problems “Owen Wingrave” delivers several such moments of beauty, along with a top class orchestra and ensemble.
“Owen Wingrave” by Benjamin Britten, with libretto by Myfanwy Piper co produced by Opera Collective Ireland and Academie de l’Opera national de Paris, runs at The O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2017 until September 16th before touring nationally.
For more information visit Dublin Fringe Festival 2017 or Opera Collective Ireland.