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Review: Owen Wingrave (Peacock Theatre)

Strong singing by an exciting cast redeems Britten's anti-war opera

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Dominic Sedgwick as Owen in Owen Wingrave (British Youth Opera)
© Clive Barda

Where have all the festivals gone? It's the same every June and July in Britain: the country crowd goes mad with clashing schedules that send singers who kick their heels at other times dashing from job to job. Then in late summer it stops dead. A few fringe events aside, there's been nothing new on the UK opera scene since A Midsummer Night's Dream opened at Glyndebourne almost a month ago.

Into this annual void steps British Youth Opera, a cracking if poorly-named body that mounts two operas every year at this time. As a showcase for young professionals and neglected repertoire it does exemplary work—who else would bring Malcolm Williamson's forgotten English Eccentrics to the West End?—and it has the added value of filling an empty calendar.

Three years ago, BYO dusted off Benjamin Britten's 1940s operetta Paul Bunyan in a rousing production by Will Kerley that's the best I've seen. Now they've gone for another Britten rarity: the unloved anti-war opera he composed for television in 1970.

As adapted by Myfanwy Piper (Britten's librettist for his previous Henry James opera, The Turn of the Screw) the tale of Owen, scion of the military Wingrave family who denies his heritage by embracing pacifism, is dramatically inert and as verbally clunky as the score is dour. It's a small miracle that within three years Britten and Piper had advanced from this to the masterly Death in Venice.

While Owen Wingrave makes for a gloomy evening, some outstanding singing and spirited playing by the Southbank Sinfonia under Alex Ingram gladden the heart. Another plus is the Southend Boys Choir, kept busy with supernumerary business and adding its ghostly offstage calls to haunting effect.

The gallery of portraits is left to the imagination

Unusually for this composer, Owen Wingrave provides a quartet of strong female roles and these are superbly taken by Alexandra Lowe (Mrs Coyle), Carrie-Ann Williams (Miss Wingrave) and Charlotte Schoeters (Mrs Julian), with mezzo Katie Coventry contributing a stellar performance as the petulant Kate Julian, a role Britten wrote for Janet Baker.

Kate, whom Owen loves, turns out to be his nemesis when she challenges him to prove his courage by spending a night in a haunted room. In true Henry James fashion we never find out what happens within (although this production ill-advisedly shows us a lame notion of it), but by morning he is no more.

Dominic Sedgwick paints Owen as an intense, earnest outsider and proves entirely convincing within the limitations of the character as written ("I don't like war" is as deep as he goes). The young baritone is matched by Harry Thatcher as his sympathetic army mentor and by John Findon as the curmudgeonly Sir Philip Wingrave, Owen's grandfather and a Downton-esque cut-out of almost two dimensions. These three in particular have outstandingly clear diction, a welcome quality in a presentation without surtitles.

Max Webster's production pales against the memory of Neil Bartlett's atmospheric Aldeburgh Festival staging of 2014, the opera's last outing of note. It's a complacent effort. BYO's budget runs to some handsome Victorian costumes yet designer James Cotterill is content to place 21st-century moulded plastic chairs in a classroom. The crucial gallery of family portraits is left to the imagination, which will confuse uninitiated spectators, and when a panoply of sub-machine guns descends from the flies characters crane their necks to admire it in unison as though it were a prized coup de théâtre—a cheesy move that cheapens the effect.

There are further performances of Owen Wingrave on 6 & 9 September, with an abridged cover performance on 10 September. English Eccentrics plays on 7 & 10 September, with an abridged cover performance on 9 September.