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CCM's "Owen Wingrave" a Triumph

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 22, 2013 - 4:40:37 PM in reviews

L to R: Baritone Edward Nelson in the title role of Benjamin Britten's "Owen Wingrave," tenor Jason Weisinger as Sir Phillip Wingrave (photo by Mark Lyons)

Benjamin Britten’s “Owen Wingrave” is as timely today as when it was premiered on BBC Television in 1971.* All the more reason for the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music to present it as part of its observance of the Britten centennial this year.

The opera was the composer’s response to the Vietnam War -- and to all wars, as Britten was an avowed pacifist. Based on the short story by Henry James, it made a deep impression on the opening night audience Thursday in Patricia Corbett Theater. It was the regional premiere of the work, which inexplicably fell out of the repertoire after its first few performances (the stage premiere was in 1973 at Covent Garden in London).

The production was by all measures outstanding, one which enveloped the listener like few in recent memory in Cincinnati. Directed by CCM professor of voice Kenneth Shaw, with scenic design by CCM senior Gabriel Firestone and lighting by faculty lighting designer Mark C. Williams, the production was well adapted to staging the work, with its rapid, cinema-like scene changes. The student cast heard Thursday (the opera is double-cast) proved ideal for Britten’s characters. Led by guest conductor/CCM alumnus Johannes Müller-Stosch, the 40-piece CCM Concert Orchestra, including a greatly enlarged percussion section, acquitted itself beautifully.

The haunted room at Paramore in Benjamin Britten's "Owen Wingrave" at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music

James’ short story is actually a ghost story, though Britten doesn’t treat it primarily as such. Set in late nineteenth-century England, it is about the scion of a military family, Owen Wingrave, who announces that he will not pursue a military career. This scandalizes his family and his childhood friend and love interest Kate. There is a mystery hanging over the family, however, involving a Wingrave boy who was killed by his father for refusing to fight when challenged by a playmate. The boy and his father were both found dead in an upstairs room of the family estate (Paramore). To convince Kate that he is not a coward, Owen agrees to spend the night in the “haunted room" to prove his valor.

Britten’s music is “tonal-centric” and lyrical, with some use of serial technique. Set in English, it is sung declamatory style over a vivid orchestral canvas. The set, which filled the PCT stage, comprised a floor-to-ceiling archway, with entrances at either side. The action transpired in the middle, with changes of scenery effected by a large panel that moved up and down, revealing Paramore with its ten large portraits of ancestral Wingraves, locales in London and the military school where the story begins.

Thursday’s Owen, baritone Edward Nelson, left nothing to be desired, commanding every aspect of his role with distinction. Bass-baritone Zachary Owen as the head of the military school, Spencer Coyle, who wants to help Owen reconcile with his family, was fully convincing in his conflicted role ("All my life I've taught the art of war, but for a war in the family, there's no answer in the books," he sings.).

Stephen Carroll as Owen’s school chum Lechmere blended unbridled enthusiasm (he is gung-ho military) with a lovely tenor voice, while tenor Jason Weisinger made an impressive Sir Phillip Wingrave (Owen’s grandfather), with a limp, a crutch and a uniform full of military medals. ("He looks quiet enough," Owen sings, "but he has a smouldering eye, red-rimmed with the heat of battle.")

Soprano Allison Watson injected suitable hysteria into her role as Owen’s outraged aunt, Miss Wingrave -- "He (Owen) will listen to the house," she sings -- as did soprano Jasmine Habersham as Kate’s mother, Mrs. Julian, her eye constantly on the family fortune she covets for her daughter. Soprano Nicole Spoltore radiated affection and good will as Mrs. Coyle, who truly cares about Owen. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Panara was part spitfire, part true love as Kate, who ultimately (and regretfully) consigns Owen to his fate. The Narrator, who advances the story offstage (taped) between acts, was well sung by tenor Chris Bozeka. Also taped, the Cincinnati Boychoir, directed by Christopher Eanes, effectively enhanced the spooky atmosphere of Paramore.

Highlights of the performance were many, beginning with the Prologue where Britten introduces the Wingraves portrait-by-portrait in a kind of orchestral cadenza. Trumpets and drums – recurring accents throughout the opera – peppered the family’s censure of Owen, culminating in a chorus of “How dare you!” at Paramore. Mrs. Copley’s defense of Owen’s scruples at the dinner table evoked a blitz of “scruples” from his hostile family, to which he definitively asserted ,“I’d make it a crime to draw your sword for your country and a crime for the government to command it.”

Act II began with a depiction of the boy and his murderous father climbing the stairs to the haunted room. Following Sir Phillip’s denunciation of Owen (he is disinherited) and Lechmere’s eager flirtation with Kate, came the musical highpoint of the opera, Owen’s ode to peace, sung in a circle of light to ethereal percussion and harp over sustained chords in the orchestra: “Peace is not weak, but strong. Peace is not silent. It is the voice of love.” Addressing the family portraits, he tells them that he has taken the boy’s stand and “I have won.”

There was a huge orchestral climax as Owen entered the haunted room. When the door was opened and his ultimate sacrifice revealed, fog and bright light poured from within.

Sung in English with surtitles, the opera repeats at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday in Patricia Corbett Theater. Tickets are $31-$35, $20-$24 for non-UC students, $18-$22 for UC students. Call (513) 556-4183 or visit ccm.uc.edu/boxoffice/owenwingrave

*Some listeners noted the irony in Owen's remark to the portrait of his father at Paramore: "I am as resolute as  you were at Kandahar (Afghanistan)," where U.S. and allied troops are involved today.