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Stage Dragon: Owen Wingrave – Grange Park Opera

Published on: 9 Dec, 2020
Updated on: 9 Dec, 2020

Image – Grange Park Opera

By Alice Fowler

Owen Wingrave is Benjamin Britten’s ‘ghost opera’: a heart-rending tale of a young man who refuses to submit to the straitjacket of familial traditions and expectations.

Written for television some thirty years ago, it is rarely performed on stage. Thanks to the strange times we live in, however, it can currently be viewed free of charge, online, in a new production by Grange Park Opera.

Filmed over five days in Surrey and London – in a Covid-safe manner – the opera tells the story of an army family, the Wingraves, and their wayward son Owen. The Wingraves are army through and through: we begin with photographic portraits of ancestors in uniform, stretching back for generations.

Owen, in a superbly sensitive performance by acclaimed young baritone Ross Ramgobin, rejects all that. As Ramgobin sings: “I can’t go through with it – being a soldier, I mean – I don’t like war.”

Britten used his work – based on a ghost story by Henry James – to explore and celebrate his own pacificism. Not surprisingly, then, our sympathies lie with Owen.

His parents are dead – his father having died in battle – and his life hence far has been ruled by his spinster aunt (the Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock) and oppressive grandfather (Richard Berkeley Steele).

Bullock, whom we first see crazy-eyed, playing war games on her laptop, is wonderfully formidable. To her, Wingraves are soldiers: and we feel Owen’s courage in casting off the weight of family tradition.

There is nothing traditional, of course, in watching opera on one’s own laptop. What is lost in terms of occasion – no need to dress up now – is made up for in accessibility.

Performances are passionate and nuanced, with all words clearly sung. Cameras linger on faces, so we see in up-close every trace of emotion. Director Stephen Medcalf has set the opera in 2001 on the brink of war with Afghanistan. While its setting is relatively recent, the decision to film entirely in black and white brings distance and dignity to this toxic family drama.

In the second act, action switches to Paramore, the Wingraves’ ancestral home, from which generations of soldiers have been sent out into battle. While his family hopes that he will “listen to the house”, Owen continues to reject all it represents. A terrible secret, enclosed within its walls, is about to be unleashed.

This production is one of 19 fresh performances staged by Grange Park Opera as part of its “Interim Season”. This online series of new events, employing dozens of artists, is available to watch free of charge until the end of the year.

Normally, a ticket to Grange Park Opera costs from £85 upwards. Try it for free until December 31 and enjoy one of the many small, compensatory treasures that 2020 has brought.

Owen Wingrave and other Interim Season events can be found at www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

 

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