Saturday 8 June 2013

Owen Wingrave at Guildhall School

Owen Wingrave was Benjamin Britten's penultimate opera, written in 1970 and receiving its first performance in a TV broadcast in 1971, going on to have its stage premiere in 1973. Something about the work's TV origins seems to have hung over the work and it only came back into prominence after Glyndebourne's performances (in 1995 by the touring opera and in 1997 at the main festival with Gerald Finley in the title role) proved it could work on stage. For the 2007 performances at the Covent Garden, David Matthews made a reduced orchestration, and it was this version which the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) performed for their summer opera. We caught the second performance, on Friday 7 June, the first performance with the alternative cast. Kelly Robinson's production, designed by Madeleine Boyd is a co production with The Banff Centre in Canada. Dominic Wheeler, GSMD's Head of Opera Studies, conducted.

The theatre at GSMD was reconfigured, so that the audience sat in two banks facing each other along the long sides of the auditorium, with the orchestra at one end and the acting area down the middle of the room.  There was a raised podium which led to steps at the end of the room, with the acting area being set with various pieces of furniture place by supers dressed as 21st century soldiers.

The modern setting was emphasised at the opening with a video of soldiers in Afghanistan. Throughout the opera, video was used extensively, partly to give a military context but there was also atmospheric film of the Wingrave boy and his father who haunt Paramore. Paramore was evoked via a black and white image at the top of the steps at the end of the room, and with a series of picture frames which were hung from the ceiling.

This setting, whilst giving a large and flexible acting area, led to two problems. The first was the the atmosphere of Paramore was just not evoked sufficiently, it wasn't the overpowering presence that it needs to be. It did not help that  the odd pieces of furniture used did not seem to belong to a grand Victorian house. The picture frames, being suspended rather too high above the acting area, seemed like more of an afterthought than a central part of the design.

The second, more serious problem, was that with the singers moving around the stage meant that diction was often a problem. The text of the opera is very important, Britten set it as continuous dialogue using the orchestra to provide pauses and comment. But it is difficult for a singer to make the text really count if they have their back to the audience. Robinson's production did try to address this by having the singers move a lot, so that they were not constantly with their back's to one part of the audience. But something was lacking.

For this reason perhaps, the first act never quite took off. The performances had some good moments but overall  the drama seemed to lack focus. I am not convinced that the contemporary updating helped the piece, the attitudes displayed by the Wingrave family did not really ring true in the modern world and the ubiquity of the soldiers (who changed the sets and acted as servants at Paramore) seemed a desperate measure.

It was only in the second half, with the series of set pieces that the drama seemed to pull together, but even then the ending lacked something of the necessary chill factor. The rationale behind the rather awkward set became apparent at the end, when the image of Paramore at the end of the room was raised to reveal Owen in death within a huge picture frame.

Piran Legg was a personable and attractive Owen, singing the role quite beautifully. But his performance lacked the intensity which holds the work together. It needs a great singing actor in the title role to focus the piece, and Legg isn't that, yet. That said, his was an impressive achievement and he held our attention.

Roisin Walsh made a highly vivid Miss Wingrave, displaying the strongest personality in the cast. Gerard Schneider made and impressive General Sir Philip Wingrave, singing his Wingrave boy solo quite beautifully. Anna Gillingham was a nicely neurotic Mrs Julian with Marta Fontanals-Simmons as a very attractive Kate. Most of the family are unlikeable and Kate is perhaps the worst, I felt that Fontanals-Simmons did slightly blunt the edge of her character.

Szymon Wach's rather accented English rather counted against him, but he overcame this to make an impressive Spencer Coyle, bringing out the character's conflicted nature. Coyle's wife is the most sympathetic character in the opera so in that sense, Samantha Crawford's job was easier than some of the other singers. But nonetheless Crawford impressed considerably, creating a fully rounded character and she is a singer I would like to hear a lot more of. Adam Smith was an admirable Lechmere, everything that Owen was not. Smith made him rather dim, but anxious and personable.

The orchestra, playing under Dominic Wheeler, were in impressive form bringing out the felicities in Britten's orchestration and contributing some fine solo items.

The director, Kelly Robinson, is the Director of Theatre Arts at The Banff Centre. Owen Wingrave is a flawed piece and Robinson seems to have been conscious of Owen Wingrave difficulty. Unfortunately his solutions do not seem to have enabled the students to bring out the best in the piece.

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