Two performances over the weekend of Benjamin Britten's haunting, pacifist opera Owen Wingrave gave another dimension to the Great War theme of the International Festival and picked up on Ian Bostridge's shattering recital last week of Britten's songs about children in war-time.
Co-produced with the Aldeburgh Festival, Neil Bartlett's production of a comparatively unloved work in the Britten canon – written for television in 1969 at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest – is both timely and profoundly moving. The first line of the plot synopsis nearly says it all: "The dead assemble. All of them are soldiers, and at least one of them is a child-killer."
Young Owen is flaunting his family traditions and desires by renouncing his military training. His family is filled with shame and anger. The social fabric is threatened. Ghosts are stirring. Night passes and, in the night, sounds emanate from a locked room…
Bartlett makes the 19th century setting – Myfanwy Piper's libretto is adapted from a Henry James story – both spooky and contemporary while retaining period costumes and turning Simon Daw's setting inside out, so that the stage is full of scenery standing with its back towards us, as though the singers are performing "offstage".
The ghosts and the family members mingle in silhouette, isolating Ross Ramgobin's callow and undemonstrative Owen in a sort of double focus. He sings the role beautifully, making Britten's uncompromising, hard-won lyricism sound the most natural expression in the world.
The score is filled out by the choristers of Chelmsford Cathedral and the Britten-Pears Orchestra superbly led by conductor Mark Wigglesworth, who takes over as ENO's music director next month; he could do a lot worse than ensure this Owen Wingrave joins the repertoire in St Martin's Lane.
Catherine Backhouse and Isaiah Bell were outstanding, too, as the exemplary figures scorned (though loved) by Owen. And a distinguished cast was further bolstered by the unimpeachable singing of Susan Bullock as Owen's furious aunt and Jonathan Summers as the military instructor at Sandhurst.
Owen Wingrave has now completed its run
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