Grange Park Opera,
Available for free online until end-2020, as part of Grange Park’s Interim Season
Composer: Benjamin Britten, based on a short story by Henry James
Director: Stephen Medcalf
Cast: Ross Ramgobin, Susan Bullock, Richard Berkeley Steele, William Dazeley, Janis Kelly, James Way, Madeleine Pierard, Kitty Whately
Running time: just under 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Even more than an outpouring of passionate pacifism, Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave is a universal exploration of the heroic strength of character required to reject decades of blind allegiance to an unholy cause.
It’s an epic struggle that could play out on a grand stage. Equally, it is suited to the intimacy of the small screen and Britten created the opera specifically for television in 1971.
This production by Grange Park Opera makes a virtue of our not being in an opera house.
Filmed over a mere five days, it’s at once naturalistic and accessible as the constraints of COVID-19 meant the singers assembled their costumes themselves and the action unfurls in hallways, bathrooms, living rooms, seen through creative camera angles and the ghostly filter of black and white.
It’s also highly dramatic, as director Stephen Medcalf gives “full rein to the satirical, often blackly comic aspects of the opera,” as he puts it in the advance publicity.
We have Susan Bullock as the formidable Miss Wingrave, hammering away at a video war game. We endure the most uncomfortable of dinner parties that culminates in Miss Wingrave and the equally war-mongering Mrs Julian (Madeleine Pierard) and her daughter Kate (Kitty Whately) contorting their faces as they chorus the to-them alien word “scruples” – Owen’s greatness and his undoing.
Owen’s grandfather Sir Philip Wingrave (Richard Berkeley Steele) lours from the head of the table and Owen’s weak friend Lechmere, played by a fine-voiced James Way, sinks into his chair.
However caricatured, the family devotion to battle is also tragic and the dark satire serves only to drive home the sense of dread that something terrible will happen, as the kindly Mrs Coyle (Janis Kelly) confides to her husband, played by William Dazeley as an unusually mild military instructor.
She is not just talking about the war in Afghanistan, which is the updated context of this production to reinforce how conflict achieves nothing but destruction.
The Coyles’ cosy domestic warmth is precisely what is denied Owen (Ross Ramgobin).
We see him walking up the almost endless drive to the family seat Paramore only to find he has lost the sympathy even of Kate, who was supposedly his intended.
The constraints of social distancing mean the cast can never get too close, which in any case is apposite given the Wingraves’ hostility and the spaces between the artfully-arranged opera singers seem to be the visual embodiment of the haunting intervals of Britten’s music.
The only physical contact is Mr Coyle’s kindly hand on Owen’s shoulder and a desperate attempted hand-holding between Kate and Owen as they merge for a final explosive duet before his sacrifice on the altar of pacificism.
We all know Grange Park can hardly wait for a return to live performance but it is impossible not to rejoice in its repeated triumphs over adversity as evidence of the arts’ creative ability to adapt and reinvent depending on the context of the day.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.