Years ago, we went to a friend’s home to see Benjamin Britten’s
“Owen Wingrave.” Today, I revisited this work, while giving my
eyes a break and listening to the 2007 Chandos recording,
conducted by Richard Hickox.
Commissioned by the BBC for television, Britten completed this
opera during 1969 and 1970. It originally aired in 1971, and if
memory serves me correctly, we were treated to a VHS transfer
of this broadcast. This two-act opera centers around the main
character’s anti-war views, which are in direct conflict with his
adoptive family’s militaristic traditions. Disinherited and branded
as a “traitor” for his “scruples,” Owen Wingrave is then rejected
by his fiancée, Kate. At his bidding, she locks him into a room believed
to be haunted by his ancestors. Upon reentering this room later, Kate
discovers Owen’s lifeless body.
In one of the last recordings made by Richard Hickox (1948-2008),
this intense drama is delivered by a strong cast and fine orchestral
playing. As with many of Britten’s operatic works, the vocal parts
are conversational, sung in an “arioso” style. The music has an
austere orchestral texture, which suits the drama. The liner notes
describe the integration of atonality (including serial techniques),
tonality and modality. A boy’s choir was also effectively used.
The libretto for “Owen Wingrave” was completed by Myfanwy Piper,
who was inspired by a short story from Henry James. Other
collaborations by Piper and Britten include “The Turn of the Screw”
and “Death in Venice.” With “Owen Wingrave,” Britten was able
to artistically vent his pacifistic beliefs.
None of the singers featured here were “standouts,” but everyone
gave competent performances. Richard Hickox presided over a
finely engineered work with cohesive sound and dramatic intensity.
I’ve yet to be disappointed by any of his recordings. While listening
to “Owen Wingrave,” I was reminded that it was a shame that
Richard Hickox died so young.