Janet Baker and Ben Luxon in the original 1970 production of ‘Owen Wingrave’
Janet Baker and Ben Luxon in the original 1970 production © Rex Features

Has it ever been easier to be a pacifist? Neocon visionaries aside, there is scant appetite for war in western democracies. Few would say armed conflict will never be necessary again – but it’s not difficult to oppose it.

The climate was different in 1942, when Benjamin Britten, aged 29, returned to Britain from the US and registered as a conscientious objector. The country was at war with Germany. Most able-bodied young men were preparing to lay down their lives for the good of the nation. Britten was branded a coward.

The title character of his opera Owen Wingrave has a similar experience. When Owen rejects the strict military traditions of his family, he is disinherited. At the work’s climax, Owen declares “in peace I have found myself”. You can almost hear Britten willing him to take a stand.

So it is appropriate, in the centenary year of the first world war’s outbreak, that the Aldeburgh Festival should choose Owen Wingrave as its centrepiece. Britten wrote it in the late 1960s, at the time of the Vietnam war, in response to a BBC commission for a television opera. He conducted the original 1970 recording in the Snape Maltings, where Aldeburgh’s new production will be mounted. This is the first time the opera will have been staged there in the 44 years since it was televised.

You would think such a time-span would have been enough to settle its reputation. Far from it. The least known of Britten’s mature operas, Owen Wingrave has been dubbed a “nasty little piece” and a “pacifist tract”. Some Britten admirers see it as a parable of gay coming-out – an interpretation that has also been applied to Albert Herring. Others judge it a weak cousin of The Turn of the Screw, another Britten opera based on a Henry James tale.

Few would deny that the ghost-story element is weaker than in The Turn of the Screw, or that the Wingrave family are monsters: even the original cast, which included Janet Baker, found them unsympathetic. There is less of the ambiguity characterising Britten’s other operas. Is Owen Wingrave evidence that his creative pulse was faltering towards the end of his life?

Those who hear traces of Britten’s suppressed violence in the score would argue otherwise, and Mark Wigglesworth, who conducts the Aldeburgh staging, goes so far as to call it “a great work”. He argues that, thanks to changing social attitudes about war, its pacifist message has less force today, and Owen’s journey is more about “a desire to be free on a personal level. How do you create an identity in a [blinkered, tradition-bound] family? At the climax, when Owen sings “Now I am at peace”, the original words were “Now I am alone”. For Britten, that was a very strong thing – an even bigger goal than world peace.”

Wigglesworth believes the opera’s reputation has suffered from its origins in television, about which “there was a certain snobbishness in the 1960s and 1970s …Britten’s genius was to see what TV could offer, in terms of intimacy and simplicity, and how direct you could be. He realised you couldn’t do big gestures – musically, literally or emotionally.”

Another reason for the opera’s early neglect was its relatively full orchestration, which led to it being “done in a big operatic way – which paradoxically made it seem less than it is.” Aldeburgh will hear it in David Matthews’s widely admired version, “which reduces the work’s [instrumental] forces but not its force.”

The director of the Aldeburgh production, Neil Bartlett, sees Owen Wingrave as an opera “about contemporary issues. It was written as much in the present tense as War Requiem – it speaks loud and clear. Britten had been to Belsen [in 1945, when he gave concerts for liberated inmates of the Nazi concentration camp]. In the 1960s, a decade when youth protested against war, he was writing as a member of the older generation. He was saying ‘I know what war costs. That’s why I’m nailing my colours and saying we have to stop.’ The question is, can we do it like this in 2014?”

Bartlett says that, far from being a handicap, the opera’s camera-friendly structure is one of its most appealing traits. “Britten was completely freed from the necessity to do scene changes. It’s not an opera where you have to stop in order to go on to the next place – you can be in two places at once. All those freedoms he exploited to the full.”

While the quick-cut nature of Britten’s dramaturgy can be hard to pull off on stage, even here Bartlett believes Britten’s music solves the problem by showing “the gradual change in Owen’s mind – it’s done as an internal depiction, rather than through changes of scenery.”

And the apparent lack of ambiguity? Bartlett disagrees. “The women of Paramore [the Wingrave ancestral home] are extraordinary portrayals. All are in mourning. They are living in a house full of memories, which makes them committed to the ideology and mythology of that house – the ideology that men are born to go to war and die. As dutiful wives, their role is to support them.

“Beneath the surface of Britten’s music] you hear the extraordinary effort they make to maintain that position, and the pressures and cracks and fissures it creates. Britten was clearly fascinated by characters who are in mourning but have never expressed their grief.”

That’s an aspect of Owen Wingrave that transcends the baggage of war and gives the opera greater depth than has hitherto been acknowledged. Virtually all the productions I have seen – in continental Europe and Britain – have emphasised its black-and-white take on militarism. Perhaps Aldeburgh, in a world no less riven by conflict and loss than in Britten’s day, can reveal a more nuanced perspective.

‘Owen Wingrave’, Aldeburgh Festival, June 13-18, aldeburgh.co.uk

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