Notes and Editorial Reviews
Opera Film, 2001
Owen Wingrave – Gerald Finley
Spencer Coyle – Peter Savidge
Lechmere – Hilton Marlton
Miss Wingrave – Josephine Barstow
Mrs Coyle – Anne Dawson
Mrs Julian – Elizabeth Gale
Kate Julian – Charlotte Hellekant
Sir Philip Wingrave – Martyn Hill
Westminster Cathedral Choir
Deutsches Symphony Orchestra Berlin
Kent Nagano, conductor
Margaret Williams, director
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Running time: 92 mins
No. of DVDs: 1 (DVD
BRITTEN Owen Wingrave • Kent Nagano, cond; Gerald Finley (Owen Wingrave); Peter Savidge (Spencer Coyle); Hilton Marlton (Lechmere); Josephine Barstow (Miss Wingrave); Anne Dawson (Mrs. Coyle); Elizabeth Gale (Kate Julian); Martyn Hill (Sir Philip Wingrave); Deutsches SO Berlin • ARTHAUS 100373 (DVD: 92:00)
This DVD documents the new TV production of Owen Wingrave produced by Channel 4 in 2001, 30 years after the original version aired on British TV. What I found curious was that the outdoor footage looked, to me, very much like English manors, yet the orchestra used for this is from Deutsches Oper Berlin. I wonder if conductor Nagano and the orchestra laid down the music track first, then had the singers dub over it back in the U.K.? No notes to this effect are in the DVD booklet.
Britten actually conceived Owen Wingrave as a television opera first, the stage production following afterwards. It works, I think, even better as an opera film or operatic television, for two reasons. First, there are several moments where the characters sing “thoughts” without moving their lips, which always works better in a film or TV show; and second, most of this score is in the style of incidental music with the vocal lines being primarily a form of sung recitative. Only two snippets strike the ear as being even close to an arioso. It is music designed to match the speech patterns of the text and redouble its effect with orchestral moments of a questioning nature, tenderness, or power.
The original cast of the 1971 film was stronger than this one in certain key roles, particularly that of Spencer Coyle, Owen’s teacher at the military academy, who was sung by John Shirley-Quirk and Mrs. Coyle, sung originally by Heather Harper. Baritone Peter Savidge is a fine actor but his voice is woofy and a bit unsteady throughout, while soprano Anne Dawson’s voice is fluttery and her English diction garbled and difficult to understand. There is, however, no loss of quality in the roles of Owen (originally sung by Benjamin Luxon), Lechmere (Nigel Douglas), Kate (Janet Baker), or Miss Wingrave (Sylvia Fisher); their modern replacements are superb in every respect. In fact, my recollection of the original film was that Fisher was not nearly as formidable or frightening a figure as Josephine Barstow. This is a Miss Wingrave who will make your hair stand on end! As for the role of old Sir Philip, originally performed by Peter Pears, Martyn Hill’s voice is now more wobbly than Pears’s was in 1971, but it’s a short role and acting ability is more important here than vocal management.
Britten’s score, as I’ve said, is very much in the nature of incidental music. He was very clever in distorting what would otherwise have been triumphant bugle calls into descending chromatic figures, as if there was nothing glorious or triumphant about them, and it is interesting to hear Britten dipping into the font of serialism, but by and large the music conveys absolutely nothing of the text either emotionally or dramatically. The cast could just as well be singing about the latest horse race at Churchill Downs or one’s losses in the stock market throughout most of this score. In brief, then, I found it well crafted but lacking in emotional or dramatic connection to the words with rare exceptions, such as the scene in which Owen’s family, girlfriend, and girlfriend’s mother all damn him as a disgrace. Possibly the most interesting facet of the plot is that Spencer Coyle, Owen’s teacher at the military academy, continues to stick up for him even in the face of his entire family’s wrath, realizing that Owen’s decision to not be a solider and instead embrace pacifism was, for him, a far braver battle than any he would face on the battlefield. It is braver because it is far more personal. An “enemy” may shoot you or stab you with a bayonet, but there’s absolutely nothing personal about it: It’s just war. For Owen to go through the verbal slings and arrows of his family’s hate and demeaning comments required far more bravery than they would ever realize.
The story is strong and compelling even though my own personal view is that by ending this very dramatic and rather realistic conflict with a ghostly murder seems a bit of a cop-out, like those jazz records which fade out on a solo. Both Henry James, who wrote the original story, and Myfanwy Piper, who wrote the libretto, did a disservice to the bravery of Owen by having him die at the hands of a vengeful old spook. How much more dramatic, and wonderful, it would have been if Owen were able to walk out of the “haunted room” alive and untouched, victorious through it all; but we must live with what we have.
In certain respects, particularly in the superb camerawork and the consistently fine acting of the cast, this is a stronger dramatic presentation even though the earlier one was better sung. The choice, then, is yours.
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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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