Kammeroper Shines with “Owen Wingrave”
By Larry Lash
© 2009 Musical America
VIENNA -- It’s an odd aspect of the opera world: a work may have a successful premiere then basically fall off the map only to be suddenly embraced decades later.
Take two 20th-century masterpieces: “Die Frau ohne Schatten” premiered in 1919, but it wasn’t until 1955, when Karl Böhm championed the piece at the newly-reopened Wiener Staatsoper, that it was noticed again. “Turandot” posthumously premiered at La Scala in 1926, but it really took Birgit Nilsson’s assumption of the title role in the early 1960s for the opera to catch on. Now, Benjamin Britten’s heretofore overlooked “Owen Wingrave” appears to be gaining momentum, after a near 40-year hiatus. Earlier this month, a highly praised production opened at The Chicago Opera Theater, and Oper Frankfurt will present a new production next year.
All of these operas have obstacles that prevented immediate acceptance. The staging demands for “Die Frau ohne Schatten” are insanely complex. The title role of “Turandot” is virtually impossible to cast. Written for the BBC, the 1971 telecast of “Owen Wingrave” featured cross-fades, dissolves and other cinematic techniques, plus the odd combination of a large orchestra with an exotic percussion battery to support the cast of eight. The work was staged at Covent Garden in 1973, but it was essentially a chamber opera with disproportionate orchestral forces presented in a theater too large to put across Myfanwy Piper’s taut, engrossing libretto.
Fast-forward: a new German television production was made in 2005 conducted by Kent Nagano, subsequently released on DVD. In 2007, the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theater staged it with a chamber reduction of the score by David Matthews. The following year, Richard Hickox recorded the opera’s second commercial recording. (Decca released the soundtrack of the original production, conducted by the composer in 1972, currently available on CD.)
On May 23, Wiener Kammeroper presented the Austrian premiere, in English, in Matthews’ reduction, further strengthening the work’s case and at the same time showing the company at its best. Based on a Henry James story, the opera tells of young Owen’s rejection of a soldier’s life, despite being the last in the line of military-obsessed Wingraves. He is rejected by friends, family and his love interest Kate, and disinherited by doddering patriarch Sir Philip. Only Owen’s instructor in the art of war, Spencer Coyle, and his childless wife are sympathetic.
With no inheritance, the marriage is off to the rather masculine Kate (“Why was I not a man?” she sings). To prove he is no coward, Owen accepts Kate’s dare to spend a night in a haunted room where an ancestor struck and killed his young son, and then was found dead the next day. The opera ends abruptly when Kate’s premonitions prove correct: the room in which she locked Owen is opened to reveal his corpse.
Director Nicola Raab and designer Anne Marie Legenstein have set the work within a group of abstract, sliding gray monoliths, which give it a military feel but also suggest the coldness of Paramore, the Wingrave mansion, and overwhelming claustrophobia. The ghost of the dead child haunts Owen, clutching his legs. With a quick movement of the monoliths, we are in Coyle’s schoolroom, dripping with toy soldiers, or in a park, or any number of locations in Paramore. A dinner table scene is effectively suggested with the cast standing in a line, each holding silver serving items (Sir Philip wields a carving knife and fork), while Owen remains empty handed, palms outstretched and upturned. Locked inside one of the monoliths, the dead Owen is revealed clad only in a loincloth, suggestive of a Michelangelo Pietà.
Tall, handsome Andrew Ashwin, a young British baritone with a lustrous, lyrical voice, scored a triumph in the marathon title role, ranging from a whisper to a roar and perfectly capturing the character’s inner torture. Also outstanding were mezzo Astrid Hofer as a butch, shrewish Kate (in jodhpurs with riding crop), and suave baritone Craig Smith, unsurpassed in diction, as a sympathetic, committed Coyle. Paul Schweinester delighted as Lechmere, Owen’s gung-ho schoolmate. Daniel Hoyem-Cavazza drew a rich reading from the Kammeroper Orchestra, although I did miss some of the astringent percussion effects of the larger ensemble. With its distinguished score and strongly pacifist content -- a view extremely personal to Britten -- it seems that Owen’s time has come.
“Owen Wingrave” has nine performances through June 18.