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Carriageworks, August 3, 2013
Benjamin Britten’s penultimate opera has had a patchy stage history over the years. The fact that it was originally written as a commission for BBC television might have put some off, yet Britten always conceived it as a potential theatre piece and musically it is structured to accommodate scene changes. The original TV broadcast was in 1970 (back when operas could be seen as primetime) and Covent Garden staged it in 1973 but its outings since then have been sporadic. An excellent Glyndebourne production in 1997 proved how effective it could be and in 2007, composer and Britten assistant David Matthews scored the piece for the typical Britten chamber orchestra such as he uses in Lucretia and Turn of the Screw. It is in this new version that the work receives its Australian premiere from the trailblazing Sydney Chamber Opera and anyone looking for the experience of potent, intimate music drama is recommended to get along to Carriageworks during its short run.
Imara Savage’s brooding production sets the whole affair in a contemporary compound, even starker that the grim interior of Carriageworks Bay 20 itself. It proves brilliantly atmospheric, overhung with the smoke of battle and redolent of POW camps from WWII to Guantanamo Bay. The action is brought up to date, which has the effect of making everyone seem slightly old-fashioned in their speech and manners, but since we are dealing with military conservatism of the highest order it’s not entirely inappropriate. There are some odd choices – putting Coyle in uniform makes it appear that Owen is in the army already rather than at a preparatory school for military strategy – but other devices, such as the Wingraves laying wreaths at a family cenotaph are powerfully executed.
Otherwise the staging is admirably clear although Savage’s use of rather awkwardly choreographed supernumeraries is an occasional distraction, particularly in Owen’s first peace speech, and the dead stag on the dining table should have been cut (it duly drew the odd snigger).
With the orchestra placed behind the action, the cast are given every opportunity to shine – and generally they do. The two standouts are the superbly focussed baritone of Morgan Pearse in the title role and the equally impressive Emily Edmonds as his former girlfriend Kate.
Pearse has a voice you’d be lucky to catch in the Sydney Opera House, even throughout the whole range and with an effortless quality at the top. His portrayal of the pro-pacifist captures the awkwardness of a young man coming to terms with an alien point of view and, a few physical ticks aside, he is highly sympathetic.
Edmonds is quite a force of nature. The role of Kate was written for Dame Janet Baker and it’s no backhanded compliment to say that she reminded me of the great mezzo on more than one occasion. The voice is ravishing, and powerful too, and she inhabits the role with a confidence that belies the musical complexity. I see she’s booked to sing Elgar's Sea Songs with the SSO – that will be worth hearing I should say.
The rest of the cast are always adequate and there are strong performances from a nicely nuanced Simon Lobelson and a warmly sympathetic Georgia Bassingthwaite as the Coyles. Rowena Cowley is a suitably pitiable figure as the highly-strung Mrs Julian (with some fine top notes to boot) while Paul Ferris makes General Wingrave a more believable figure than is sometimes the case. Pascal Herington carries off Lechmere’s tricky vocal lines with aplomb and Kornélia Pérchy does what she could with the strident, starchy Miss Wingrave.
Perhaps another reason for the work’s relative lack of performance lies with Britten’s music. It’s one of his tougher scores in which he more that just flirts with the 12-tone scale and it has a gritty, relentless quality enhanced by a barrage of tuned percussion. In Matthews’s rescoring however it is a revelation. The scrupulous Jack Symonds brings out every colour and gesture with great care and loving attention to detail and his 15 players are absolutely first rate. What emerges is a world constantly under threat of violence, where the only relief is in Owen’s (read Britten’s) pleas for the strength of peace. And that, in a nutshell, is as it should be.
Owen Wingrave plays at Carriageworks, Sydney until August 10