Friday, May 29, 2009

Owen Wingrave

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is noted as a composer of operas. He was the first major composer to be born in England for three centuries who was first and foremost an opera composer.
The premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells Theatre on June 7, 1945 is generally considered a watershed in the history of British music. He would go on to write fourteen more operas including Paul Bunyan which had preceded Peter Grimes by four years. A majority of these operas have continued in the regular repetoire of opera companies throughout the world. I have been fortunate to have been able to attend productions of several of his operas including Grimes and Billy Budd at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; and, The Rape of Lucretia, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Death in Venice and, this past week, Owen Wingrave, all in productions by Chicago Opera Theater.

The production of Owen Wingrave that recently ended at Chicago Opera Theater was beautiful with a dreamlike setting, wonderful voices, and with Steuart Bedford, who worked on the premiere with Benjamin Britten, as the conductor. The opera was originally produced in 1971 on BBC television and is based on a short story by Henry James. The plot is simple, portraying a young man who is born into a military family but who chooses to reject the military career because he is a pacifist. While the music is some of Britten's best in his inimitable late atonal style the drama leaves something to be desired as there is little development and the members of Owen's family come across as merely shrill caricatures of a military family. It made me wonder why Owen did not shuck it all and leave for the hills; his complex reasons for staying are not made clear and the ending, with Owen's sudden declaration of independence and a seemingly tacked-on family ghost story, does not satisfy. Fortunately I have fond memories of previous successful Chicago Opera Theater Britten productions, particularly Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream, on which to base hope of more great Britten opera in the future.

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