When you weigh up the possible reasons for Owen Wingrave’s muted success, the fact that Britten wrote it for television is of least consequence. It has much the same exquisite craftsmanship as The Turn of the Screw, also based on a Henry James story, but not the same ambiguity. There are the goodies – the characters who believe in freedom of conscience – and the baddies, who believe in obedience to a military ideal.
The challenge is not merely to tell the story clearly, surmounting the technical hurdles posed by Britten’s quick-cut scenography, but to soften the black-and-white depiction of the principals. It is not the fault of the Guildhall School’s excellent cast that Kelly Robinson’s staging fails on both counts. It starts on dodgy ground by setting the opera in the present, with video images of the Afghan war and the return of dead soldiers, and ends with Owen returning to life in combat gear. Unconvincing even on its own terms, this referencing to military service today – when young men and women enlist out of choice, despite widespread public disillusionment with militarism – just doesn’t work. A 1939-42 setting would have been more effective, and more in tune with the pressures facing Britten as a conscientious objector.
Even in terms of practical stagecraft, the production falls short on several counts, swamping text and music with film images (James Adkins) and making poor use of the central strip of stage. Owen’s crucial Peace aria has little impact, even though a ready-made platform is available.
That the performance still proves thought-provoking is due partly to Britten’s particular genius, for the opera, despite its flaws, remains a powerful parable of pacifism and gay “coming out”; partly to the student orchestra’s projection of the wondrous score (adapted for chamber orchestra by David Matthews) under Dominic Wheeler’s baton; and partly to a cast who clearly believe in their parts. Benjamin Appl’s Owen makes a handsome, quietly composed centrepiece. The most complete portrayal is Samantha Crawford’s Mrs Coyle, closely followed by Joseph Padfield’s Spencer Coyle. The “baddies” are more caricatured, though Catherine Backhouse’s Kate has a promising mezzo and fills out the character convincingly.