Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Owen Wingrave is a collaboration with The Banff Centre in Canada, and director Kelly Robinson has been brought across to stage the opera, which he does with boldness and visual flair. He and designer Madeleine Boyd use a traverse arrangement, with the orchestra at one end and a high walkway the other, giving a sense of the rambling country house at the work's centre.
On either side of the auditorium, above the audience's heads, two screens show contemporary battle footage and bring the work bang up to date with projections of Owen's Facebook page. Later, spidery images flicker across the screens, as the opera descends into its rather feeble scared-of-the dark ghost story.
It's fair to say that Owen Wingrave, written for TV, is not Britten's strongest stage work, although there's some fabulous work going on in the orchestrations (here in David Matthews's reduction), superbly played by the Guildhall orchestra, under Dominic Wheeler. It's no disrespect to baritone Benjamin Appl to say that during Owen's long monologue towards the end, attention is drawn constantly to what's going on in the percussion section.
If the opera's updating to the present day is visually strong, resonant with current wars, the weakness of the evening lies in the handling of Britten's stereotyped cast of characters. The Wingrave family bang on about family honour and courage in battle in a one-dimensional representation of the composer's own demons and, to be fair, it's very difficult to present them as anything other than ciphers, but there seems little attempt to combat that here.
Spencer Coyle (Joseph Padfield), and to some extent his wife (Samantha Crawford), are given some humanity by being allowed to show sympathy for Owen's plight but the formidable Miss Wingrave (Rosin Walsh) is just Lady Billows without the laughs and the rest of the family – crusty old General Sir Philip (Gerard Schneider), Raphaela Papadakis's pretty Mrs Julian and Catherine Backhouse's snobby Kate – put the strange behavior of an English upper middle class family to the fore, which is hardly all the work is about. The decision to play Owen's army friend Lechmere (Adam Smith) as a grinning simpleton seems an odd distraction.
Britten's own struggle with pacifism is clearly at the heart of Owen Wingrave but, based as it is (like The Turn of the Screw) on a Henry James novella, it ends up as little more than a spooky ghost tale. The two subjects don't mix well and the updating facilitates against any scariness. The original TV production may appear creaky to us now, but it had bags of suspense and, being set in the story's original Victorian era, made greater sense of the strict moral family code. As with the 2001 film conducted by Kent Nagano and with Gerald Finley in the lead, the modernity of Robinson's production dissipates the gothic atmosphere.
The singing is of a standard we expect from a school of Guildhall's standing, with excellent work from the cast of young singers, but the evening does leave one with an emptiness which can only partly be blamed on a flawed work.