Not content to leave child abuse to the more thematically explicit of Britten's operas – Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw – some modern directors set themselves up as armchair Kinseys and pick out psychosexual subtext, real or imagined, in the others. The nadir of this conceit was Christopher Alden's public-school take on A Midsummer Night's Dream for ENO, and there are aspects of Neil Bartlett's Aldeburgh Festival production of Owen Wingrave the that evoke comparable feelings of unease.
Using the same source novelist (Henry James) and librettist (Myfanwy Piper) as The Turn of the Screw, Britten's penultimate opera is the tale of a young man from a military family who is hounded and haunted to his death for refusing to become a soldier.
At the heart of Bartlett's interpretation is the second-act ballad that tells of a Wingrave ancestor who, as a child, was murdered by his father for refusing to fight another boy. The excellent James Way insinuates this story into Owen's ear like Quint seducing Miles, making it less an elucidation of his moral position than a taunt against his manhood. This slant is developed by a silent chorus of army recruits (listed as ‘The Dead'), who act menacingly towards first one then several young boys. ("All of them are soldiers, and at least one is a child-killer", states Bartlett in a programme note.) The cross-generational nature of the assault by men in uniform on pyjama-clad children is disturbing in a rather different way from straightforward conscientious objection.
Taken for what it is, however, Bartlett's approach works well and is smartly staged amid Simon Daw's spare designs. Besides, Owen Wingrave needs a bit of help since it remains Britten's one operatic flop. Its relative lack of popularity is partly down to an uncompromisingly stark score (expertly rendered here by Mark Wigglesworth and the Britten-Pears Orchestra, using David Matthews's chamber reduction) but mainly, one suspects, because of under-developed characters, a meagre storyline and the hectoring of a libretto that deals in dubious assertions – "Peace is not won by your wars" – with little attempt at discourse.
"Baritone Ross Ramgobin's exciting vocal skills"
The faux-proscenium arch that Snape sometimes unpacks for touring operas is not used; instead the open spaces of the Maltings concert platform are filled with kinetic interest by Struan Leslie's precise movement direction of Bartlett's supernumeraries. Oddly, the big, bare stage somehow helps to isolate the individual against the world so that the opera seems more than usually like a dark retread of the earlier Albert Herring, with a hapless youth placed at the mercy of caricatured (and mainly female) village worthies.
In a cracking cast Susan Bullock, whose CBE was announced soon after the opening performance, was a fearsome Miss Wingrave and Janis Kelly a steel-eyed Mrs Julian. Alongside these formidable sopranos a third veteran, Jonathan Summers, gave a complex account of Spencer Coyle, the conscience-smitten military tutor, and Richard Berkeley-Steele harrumphed appropriately through his occasional appearances as the paterfamilias Sir Philip Wingrave.
As Lechmere, Isaiah Bell was every inch the eager soldier-in-waiting, while Catherine Backhouse was a petulant Kate, needling Owen until he could take no more and headed off towards an unspecified supernatural death in a haunted room. Owen himself was sung with such subtlety and beauty that one can hardly wait for baritone Ross Ramgobin's stagecraft to catch up with his exciting vocal skills. A word, too, for the Choristers of Chelmsford Cathedral, whose ethereal offstage contributions were breathtakingly beautiful.
There are further performances of Owen Wingrave on 16 and 18 June at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, and from 15 August at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh as part of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival