|Scene from Little Opera Theater of New York's production of Britten's Owen Wingrave
Encouraged by three recent positive experiences of Benjamin Britten (two productions of Albert Herring and Xeni Tziouvaras' performance of his Charm of Lullabies, we approached a performance of his Owen Wingrave with enthusiasm. We left with disappointment verging on despair.
Written for television in 1970, Myfanwy's Piper's libretto is an etiolated adaptation of Henry James' eerie ghost story, here made into an anti-war screed masquerading as a family drama. The horror is as absent as the vowels in Ms. Piper's given name. (Even the homosexual hints have been removed, although that did not create a problem in terms of focusing on the hero's determination to resist the military.)
The absence of titles and the unclear diction of many members of the cast obviated a clear understanding of the finer points of the story although the superior acting abilities of the cast got the major points across.
We have come to think of operas written after the middle of the 20th c. as "plays with music". In this case, the "play" was insufficiently dramatic and the lines were often like lectures, not like dialogue.
The music was unmusical. We didn't expect any gorgeous melodic arias but we were dismayed by the dialogues and especially the monologues which could have told us something about the character "singing" it. (By contrast, the arias heard last night in Massenet's Hérodiade each told us something about the character and his/her situation.)
Maestro Richard Cordova probably enjoyed conducting this challenging score but it was difficult to listen to. No doubt the musicians in the chamber orchestra (orchestration was by David Matthews) played well but we got no pleasure from listening.
The spare set by Josh Smith comprised tables, chairs, and a bed. Nothing more was needed. His lighting design went a long way toward creating an eerie mood that James' story called for.
Lara de Bruijn's costumes were drab and perfectly appropriate to the late 19th c.
Philip Shneidman's direction seemed as static as the story. People stood around or sat. Seeing someone climb a flight of stairs seemed compelling by comparison.
Alex Basco Koch's projections were perhaps the most interesting element of the production, helping to repurpose the simple set from one scene to another. The grand outward appearance of the Paramore ancestral manse was projected above the set and the interior was decorated by projections of portraits revealing the family's military heritage.
Coming from a military family, the hero's refusal to complete his martial education arouses the disgust of his family, his girlfriend, and his ancestral manor. They vilify hime and drive him to his death, which should have been more "ghostly" but wasn't. He is accused of lacking courage and his "intended" insists he demonstrate his courage by sleeping in a room in which a father and son had previously died.
The theme of the tormenting and rejection of the outsider is a theme dear to Britten's heart and baritone Robert Balonek did a fine job of portraying this self-determined young man who refuses to follow the life plan for which he was intended. His diction was clear and, for the most part, understandable.
Similarly, as his military instructor Spencer Coyle, bass Matthew Curran cut a fine figure and made the words clear. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast were only occasionally comprehensible, which may be due partly to the fact that the vocal line was not designed to be understood and the lengthy phrases did not resemble spoken or sung speech. Instead they came across as written text.
We have no criticism of any of the voices. Indeed it is impossible to appreciate a singer's technique with material like this. Fortunately, we have heard and enjoyed their voices under more felicitous circumstances.
What we can say is that the acting was persuasive with soprano Emily Pulley portraying a very rejecting maiden aunt. Presumably, Mrs. Julian is a family hanger-on and soprano Mary Ann Stewart was as fine in the role as mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht was as her daughter Kate, the one who eggs on Mr. Wingrave to his death. Tenor Bernard Holcomb portrayed Owen Wingate's friend Lechmere.
As the grandfather General Sir Philip Wingrave, tenor Rufus Müller was appropriately nasty, disinheriting his grandson. The only kindly character was Coyle's wife, nicely portrayed by soprano Janice Hall.
Nothing pains us more than seeing a waste of talent, time, and resources. With so many undiscovered gems out there, it's a pity to see this happen.
(c) meche kroop