Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 5

THE tyros at Sydney Chamber Opera nimbly and thrillingly tread where larger organisations fear to go, or at least traverse sparingly. Owen Wingrave is perfect SCO territory: it is 20th century repertoire, it’s an Australian stage premiere and it suits presentation by a small, tightly focused group of musicians. Another attraction, very much for audiences as well as SCO, is that Owen Wingrave is far from being over-familiar, yet in Benjamin Britten’s centenary year it has an undeniable claim on selection. Lots of ticks there.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The company, founded in 2010, has an astute understanding of what is right for it and what it can do well. Its gripping Australian premiere last year of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday, is another case in point, and it is no wonder SCO asked In the Penal Colony’s gifted young director, Imara Savage, to return for Owen Wingrave.

Written in 1971 as a commission for television (those were the days), Owen Wingrave was Britten’s penultimate opera and is an extended cry for peace. Owen, a young man from a family with a deep-rooted military tradition, “heir to the Wingrave flag of glory”, turns his face against war. His apostasy shocks his friends and relations. His willingness to fight and almost certainly to die is the only thing expected of him. He is not to think, to question or to have ideas. When he does, the icy rectitude of his hidebound, unimaginative family cracks.

It’s harrowing material that comes with a twist, a supernatural element present in the Henry James story on which the opera is based. Librettist Myfanwy Piper’s introduction of this spectral material is less elegant than one might wish, but Savage, designer Katren Wood and movement director Johanna Puglisi quietly make it part of the fabric from the start, which is a real achievement.

The setting is a cheerless space enclosed by a three-sided wire fence, giving intimations of prisons or encampments real and imagined. I was taken by the way that within this, Savage uses only a small number of big, uncluttered images. A huge stag laid out on the dining table silently attests to a tradition of killing and entitlement, a suddenly unfurled portrait becomes a constant reminder of the weight of heritage and a blood-stained boy mutely represents a family tragedy. I do wish directors would find a way other than opening black umbrellas to indicate a trip to the cemetery, but it’s a small point.

The simplicity of means lets Britten’s highly coloured score do its passionate work. The small orchestra plays David Matthews’s well-regarded reduction and features a bracing concentration of brass, woodwinds and percussion alongside the strings. There’s an enormous sense of urgency as the music groans, clashes and cries out, then subsides into quite lovely introspection or unsettling premonition. The mix of influences, particularly from eastern music, can make for unexpected, even unruly, passages but conductor Jack Symonds and the 15 players make an extremely persuasive case for music that’s rarely heard in any big opera houses.

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Against these riches the vocal lines are solid and unadorned, mostly serving the text well. There are no reservations about the cast, all admirably suited to their roles. Morgan Pearse is a revelation in the title role, engaging sympathy with a glowing, firm, rich baritone and nuanced acting. Owen’s fiancée Kate is an unlikeable woman, yet Emily Edmonds finds a way to make her understandable and does so with a beautifully produced mezzo that is penetrating without losing its smooth texture. Tenor Pascal Herington also makes a strong impression as Owen’s friend Lechmere and as the ballad-singing Narrator who tells how the Wingrave family came to be haunted. I also very much liked Georgia Bassingthwaighte’s sensible, caring Mrs Coyle, but there was no weak link anywhere.

Owen Wingrave finishes on Saturday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on August 7.

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