Richard Hickox

Britten: Owen Wingrave

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Owen Wingrave, Britten's penultimate opera, is arguably his weakest. It was written for a 1970 BBC television production and has been performed on the stage, but it remains one of his least frequently performed mature operas. Part of the fault lies with the libretto by Myfanwy Piper, who provided the excellent librettos for The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. Based on a ghost story by Henry James, the plot concerns a young man from a military family who embraces pacifism and is rejected by everyone he cares about. To prove that he is not simply a coward, he agrees to spend the night in a haunted room, in which he mysteriously dies. The opera has little dramatic movement; it consists almost entirely of Owen's family's and friends' outrageous insults and recriminations, and his firm adherence to his convictions. The choice of topic was clearly a reflection of Britten's pacifism, and the result seems more like a manifesto than a fully fleshed out human drama. In spite of Britten's passionate commitment to pacifism, the story didn't call forth his most inspired music. The music is endlessly inventive, and while there are beautiful moments, there is little that's truly memorable, and it doesn't add up to a very engaging or moving musical drama. One problem is Britten's text setting, which lacks the purposefulness of his best work and is surprisingly sing-song. Another is the fact that the music doesn't consistently illuminate the deep psychology of the drama, as it does in almost all of his other operas. The gamelan-like orchestration is its most powerful element, and the orchestral interludes are the most interesting parts. This performance may not supplant Britten's own version on Decca, but the individual singers are consistently strong, and James Gilchrist is far more persuasive as a young recruit than the aging Peter Pears was. The City of London Sinfonia plays crisply and colorfully under Richard Hickox. Chandos' sound is clean, with good balance and presence

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