Opera Scotland

Owen Wingrave 2014Aldeburgh Music

Read more about the opera Owen Wingrave

There will always be debate as to which of Britten's operas is his masterpiece in the form - is it Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, or Turn of the Screw? There is now, however, little doubt about the least successful one. Gloriana after its difficult reception has been successfully rehabilitated, but it has taken many years for Owen Wingrave to reach Scotland. Performances anywhere have always been something of a rarity. Originally devised for television, at least the successful adaptation of the score for chamber orchestra will make it more accessible to companies.

The fundamental problem with the work is that there are four villains, all drawn in rather two-dimensional terms. It is well on into the second act before Miss Wingrave is shown to thaw a little, while Mrs Julian, Kate and Sir Philip never really present a human face, the last two thawing only in the final sequence. An insurmountable additional factor is that most people who have been able to acquaint themselves with the work will have done so through Britten's own recording. This still sounds wonderful.

However, opera has always been said to be the least realistic of all the arts. Teenagers may have to be represented by mature voices. Even as a TV opera, now on DVD, it is clear that most of the original cast were too old, and there was not enough difference, in age terms, between the distinctly mature students and their seniors. The whole visual approach seems stagey, very much of its time.

This new production, originating in Aldeburgh, featured several youthful singers from the Britten-Pears Young Artist programme. All were quite remarkably good. Ross Ramgobin, in the title role, was highly successful at communicating the ambivalence of the character. He is certainly not a coward, indeed he showed quite a hard side to Owen. There was an almost gleeful pleasure in announcing, indeed repeating, his view that most of his ancestors should have been hanged. The young tenor Isaiah Bell made more of Lechmere than might be expected - both attracted to Kate and repelled by her.

That ghastly character, created by Janet Baker, was very cleverly portrayed by Catherine Backhouse. Raised with the sole purpose of marrying the hero and sharing his wealth, it was almost possible to sympathise with her, when she is faced with the prospect of losing it. Samantha Crawford had a great success as Mrs Coyle. The one totally sympathetic character in the work, she was also played as both youthful and mentally mature, an interesting character, both fond of her much older husband, and gradually able to manipulate him. James Way, singing the unaccompanied Prologue after the interval (presumably put there to minimise comparisons with the beginning of Turn of the Screw), made a telling contribution.

There were also four hugely experienced singing actors with well-established international careers - Susan Bullock, Janis Kelly, Richard Berkeley-Steele and Jonathan Summers. None of these great performers has visited Scotland anything like as often as they should have, so it was good to have the opportunity to catch up with them. By bringing in a Wagnerian in her prime, Miss Wingrave was at once seen to be a more formidable figure appropriate for an aunt, rather than a great-aunt. This allowed Richard Berkeley-Steele to play the General believably as a grandfather. His Scottish appearances were early in his career, before he took on his substantial Wagnerian repertoire, which unfortunately passed us by.

Janis Kelly was a more frequent performer here. A sensitive actor, she was able to show the stressful effect of a long widowhood of genteel poverty and dependence, dominated by her need to secure a suitable future for her daughter. Mrs Julian might almost be a tragic figure if we could be persuaded to feel sympathy for her predicament, when her dominant characteristic is self-pity. Jonathan Summers gave a rounded, warm-hearted interpretation of Coyle, gradually, under his wife's influence, adopting some liberal ideas previously foreign to him.

Mark Wigglesworth's operatic work is not known in Scotland, but he paced the work beautifully, especially as the screw tightened in the second act. An intriguing aspect of this enterprise was that it featured a reduction of the score for chamber orchestra, prepared by Britten's former student, David Matthews in 2007. Requiring only a few more players than the early chamber operas, this should increase the number of performances the work receives.

Neil Bartlett, long recognised as an imaginative director in the theatre, was a relative operatic novice. This didn't seem to be a problem, since there were plenty of interesting ideas within the elementary design concept. The set was minimalist, with simple flats that wheeled about. These were easily adjusted by a team of nine silent extras in uniform. Billed merely as The Dead, they represented a range of groups, from fellow-students at the beginning to previous generations of Wingraves (fortunately not in a Ruddigore-style portrait gallery). They were joined by the Narrator (as Sir Philip's nurse) and a dozen choirboys required for offstage singing, but visibly effective in representing the ill-fated subject of the family legend.

Performance Cast

Owen Wingrave the last of the Wingraves

Ross Ramgobin

Spencer Coyle head of a military cramming establishment

Jonathan Summers

Lechmere a young student of Coyle's

Isaiah Bell

Miss Jane Wingrave Owen's aunt

Susan Bullock

Mrs Coyle

Samantha Crawford

Mrs Julian a widow and dependant at Paramore

Janis Kelly

Kate Mrs Julian's daughter

Catherine Backhouse

General Sir Philip Wingrave Owen's grandfather

Richard Berkeley-Steele

Narrator a Ballad Singer

James Way

Performance DatesOwen Wingrave 2014

Map List

King's Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

15 Aug, 19.30 17 Aug, 19.30

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