Opera Scotland

Owen Wingrave

Music

Benjamin Britten (born 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text

Myfanwy Piper

Source

Short story (1892) by Henry James (1843-1916).

 

Premieres

First Television showing: BBC2 Television, 16 May 1971.

First Stage Performance: London (Royal Opera House), 10 May 1973.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King's Theatre), 15 August 2014.

 

Background

In choosing a story by Henry James to be adapted by Myfanwy Piper, Britten was returning to the framwork used earlier for The Turn of the Screw. For that reason alone, it is hardly surprising if the later work has struggled to gain popularity, as it inevitably faces unfavourable comparison with an opera many consider to be his masterpiece in the form. It does share with Turn of the Screw a sense of ambiguity, with the possible intervention of supernatural elements, though these are of less importance.

The story suited Britten, in that Owen's pacifist principles chimed closely with Britten's own. The timing of the project is also widely seen as being influenced by the political unrest in the late 1960s resulting largely from the Vietnam War.

 

Main Characters

Sir Philip Wingrave, a retired General (tenor)

Miss Wingrave, his niece (soprano)

Owen Wingrave, his grandson and her nephew, a student (baritone)

Lechmere, Owen's classmate and friend (tenor)

Spencer Coyle, a tutor of military affairs (bass-baritone)

Mrs Coyle, his wife (soprano)

Mrs Julian, a poor relation of the Wingraves (soprano)

Kate Julian, her daughter (mezzo-soprano)

 

Plot summary

The opera is composed in a series of brief scenes which interconnect in space and in time, revealing its origins as a work for television. The various locations in the first act include the Wingraves' ancestral home in the country at Paramore; Miss Wingrave's London house in Baker Street, and Spencer Coyle's military tutoring establishment in Bayswater. The second act is all set in the country house.

Owen and Lechmere are studying under Dr Coyle, who regards Owen as his most apt pupil. However Owen no longer has any interest in a military career, though this is the only kind of life his family understands, and his own father is one of many ancestors to have died in battle. When Owen tells the Coyles of his determination to abandon the military training, they are sympathetic, only wanting what is best for him. At Paramore, however, attitudes are very different, and when Owen arrives with Lechmere he is persecuted not just by his grandfather and his aunt, but also by Mrs Julian, and even Kate, supposedly his intended. Mr and Mrs Coyle arrive for a visit, and try to provide a moderating influence. The ranks of portraits of militaristic ancestors provide an oppressive background, and there are suggestions of ghostly goings-on. At dinner the relationships become stormy, and when Owen's pacifist views are made plain, Sir Philip erupts in fury and storms out.

A ballad recounts a story of a Wingrave who killed his young son in a burst of fury when the boy was accused of cowardice. The father had then been found dead in the same bedroom on the day of the child's funeral. As the feuds continue, Owen is disinherited by his grandfather. This causes Mrs Julian to collapse as she sees her hopes for Kate's future prosperity disappear. However Lechmere immediately makes a play for Kate himself. Kate still taunts Owen over what she sees as his cowardice. She concocts the idea that Owen should prove his valour by spending a night in the haunted bedroom. He agrees, and she locks him in. Later, as Lechmere tells the Coyles of this latest development they hear Kate crying out. When the bedroom is unlocked Owen is found dead.

The Cast

Boy
 
General Sir Philip Wingrave
 Owen's grandfather
Kate
 Mrs Julian's daughter
Lechmere
 a young student of Coyle's
Miss Jane Wingrave
 Owen's aunt
Mrs Coyle
 
Mrs Julian
 a widow and dependant at Paramore
Narrator
 a Ballad Singer
Owen Wingrave
 the last of the Wingraves
Spencer Coyle
 head of a military cramming establishment

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