Benjamin Britten's opera Owen Wingrave was composed in 1969/70 for the BBC. The stage version premiered in May 1973 at Covent Garden. A Channel 4 TV production followed in 2001. A chamber orchestra production was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre in London in April 2007. An Austrian premier, conducted by Daniel Hoyem-Cavazza, took place at the Wiener Kammer Oper on 23rd May this year. Poet-in-Residence attended the 2nd June performance in Vienna. It was the uncompromising statement to pacifism that one expects from Britten and it was superbly directed by Nicola Raab.
To understand the great strengths and depths of Owen Wingrave we must first consider the ethos behind the almost claustrophobic atmosphere induced in the small chamber opera theatre by Britten's music. We the audience must almost become Wingrave the pacifist rebel, the young man who refuses to set foot on the traditional career ladder as a military officer, refuses to become a pawn, perhaps rising to the rank of knight, on the world's political and religious war games chessboard. We must finally strive to lock ourselves and our minds in the haunted attic, a space the size of a cupboard, with Wingrave the family outcast, for we must bring ourselves to feel that we have died in there with him.
So what does Britten himself have to say about military matters? How does he view the role of the non-combatant, the disgraced man who refuses to fight for his country, the man who must eventually be labelled as an unworthy coward?
Here's what he said as early as 1942: Since I believe that there is in every man the spirit of God, I cannot destroy [...] however strongly I may disapprove of the individual's actions or thoughts. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction. Moreover, I feel that the fascist attitude to life can only be overcome by passive resistance. If Hitler were in power here or this country had any similar form of government I should feel it my duty to obstruct the regime in every non-violent way possible, and by complete non-cooperation.
In a key scene from the opera the pacifist hero puts it more poetically in the words of librettist Myfanwy Piper which are powerfully sung by Andrew Ashwin: In peace I have found my image, I have found myself. [...] Peace is not weak but strong like a bird's wing bearing its weight in dazzling air. Peace is not silent, it is the voice of love. [...] Peace is not won by your wars. Peace is not confused, not sentimental, not afraid. Peace is positive, is passionate, committing - more than war itself. Only in peace I can be free.
The Wingrave family routinely educates its boys into the ways of war and has done so for hundreds of years. It begins as soon as the youngster is able to hold a toy soldier in his hand. They have cupboards crammed full of soldiers; in fact they have so many soldiers that when the cupboard is opened many of them fall off the shelves. As he grows into adulthood Owen finds that he prefers to read the works of the poets rather than play with soldiers. His family becomes concerned about this strange behaviour. They bombard him with horrible words which are angry and futile attempts intended to force him to change his ways.
At last it's out, Owen tells the family, I'm strong, not mad or weak. Strong against war [...] the word NO, the peace - the kind the poets know wins everything! He is beyond the pale when he charges: politicians [...] and priests in blood red robes look to thyselves!. He draws attention to his grandfather's blinkered ignorance: Grandfather with smouldering eye knows no other life than war! And all the time the tension builds, the sounds of trumpets and preparations for battle disjointed in the music, almost falling apart, dissolving into disaster, returning and fading to end with almost hypnotic effect in the building tension; enhanced by the sound of the strangely ticking clock.
Owen Wingrave, to use a cliche´ meaningfully, is an opera for today and it ought to be performed more often than it is. Full marks therefore to the Wiener Kammer Oper and all concerned for putting it on. We were treated to wonderful perfomances, and indeed some exceptional ones, not only from the amazing Andrew Ashwin but from all the cast including Rika Shiratsuchi (Mrs Coyle), Brian Galliford (Sir Philip Wingrave) and Craig Smith (Spencer Coyle). Anne Marie Legenstein's uncluttered stage design and Michael Hofer's atmospheric lighting were both spot-on.
Owen Wingrave (with German subtitles) at the Wiener Kammer Oper, Fleischmarkt 24, Vienna on the following dates: 4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 16, 18 June 2009.