Notes and Editorial Reviews
Owen Wingrave, written for BBC television, is a symphonic and instrumental masterpiece, and Nagano’s direction is electric, with just as much grip as the composer’s Decca account. The sound has bags of presence, too. Even with no pictures or words, this DVD would make the best possible case for Britten’s major take on the European bitterly ironic mainstream, his op. 85, from the end of the Beatles’s decade. The bleak anti-war tale also chimes with R. D. Laing’s horror stories of “normal” family life (in The Divided Self; Sanity, Madness, and the Family; and Self and Others, for example). The opera is a real child of its time, and ours.
Commentary on Wingrave stresses the problems. Britten didn’t take to TV working methods, and
the most sympathetic writers on the composer sound as though they are apologizing for the piece. Director Margaret Williams has made a fresh TV production, and apart from some unconvincing flashback-frolics for Owen and his fiancée, it conveys more dramatic sense than the original. Updated to the 1950s, the simple story makes its grim point. The original cast (Baker, Harper, Pears, Luxon, Shirley-Quirk, et. al.) prompted an uncompromising standard in the vocal writing, with no minor roles. Critics have complained the characters are unsympathetic, but Britten is portraying inhuman intolerance, which is both very brave, and a demonstration that he understood the working of the small screen pretty well. Gerald Finley sings and acts to the manner born: he is Owen Wingrave, understated, determined, and powerless. The family members are sung as the terrifying, alienating, and ugly bunch they are, with a new, scary integrity to the ensemble scenes. Peter Savidge is outstanding as the only reassuring character in the opera, Spencer Coyle, while Charlotte Hellekant looks wonderful enough to seduce the men, yet with sufficient vocal steel to bring the dark second act to its awful climax. The opera’s closing words (Sir Philip’s possibly-humanizing “My boy!” in the Faber vocal score) are not sung here, and Hellekant’s “Owen, he’s dead!” ends matters, before the chilling reprise of the Ballad and the credits.
The bonus documentary, made for the UK’s Channel Four TV, won’t tip the balance. It runs for nearly an hour and, typically, mixes archive footage with close-up shots of current performers in corresponding music. This doesn’t work, as it leaves you desperate to see the rest of the archive footage now—especially the great acting/singing of Pears (simply overwhelming and mesmerizing in Grimes), and the premiere of the War Requiem. There are some valuable eye-and-ear witness interviews and insights, notably with John Amis, but the reminiscences of the Rostropoviches (fascinating, but in Russian) omit subtitles, which is a real problem. Otherwise, if you think you don’t like Owen Wingrave, this DVD should help change your mind for good.
Paul Ingram, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Owen Wingrave, Op. 85 by Benjamin Britten
Gerald Finley (Baritone),
Martyn Hill (Tenor),
Peter Savidge (Baritone),
Josephine Barstow (Soprano)
Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1970; England
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