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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Opera Review: Keep it in the Family

The Little Opera of New York premieres Owen Wingrave.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A man alone: Robert Balonek in the title role of Owen Wingrave.
Photo by Tina Buckman © Little Opera Theatre of New York.
Not every opera is made for the stage.

In 1971, Benjamin Britten's penultimate opera Owen Wingrave was premiered on the BBC. It was a new idea, writing operas for television, and one that was not exactly the wave of the future. Owen was seen onstage in 1973 and has enjoyed occasional revivals since. On Thursday night, as part of the ongoing New York Opera Festival, the Little Opera Theatre of New York staged the first live-action performance of the opera. The performance was at the GK Theater, tucked at the watery end of Jay Street in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

The libretto, by Britten's friend Myfanwy Piper marked the pair's second setting of a ghost story by Henry James. In this case, the title character is a conscientious objector (like Britten himself) who rejects his ancient family's military legacy to stand in favor of pacifism. This moral stand proves destructive as Owen is put into a state of social and economic isolation. At the opera's climax, he attempts to prove his bravery in the face of supernatural forces, but is soon found dead.

For this performance, conductor Richard Cordova chose the smaller, lighter chamber arrangement of Britten's score made by David Matthews. This sparse orchestration let the melodic lines of Britten's score spring into sharp focus. Every scrape of a bow, tap of a timpani or offstage trumpet had the potential to be a voice of Paramore's ghosts, and the entire score has an eerie and hypnotic effect. This is Britten at his most experimental, standing on the threshold of atonal writing but never quite crossing to the other side.

As Owen, baritone Robert Balonek led the first of the two casts. He sang with dark tone and a sonorous presence, giving strength to his anti-military stance. From the opera's opening scene he was pressed on all sides by his teacher, his colleagues, and his family and Mr. Balonek stood his vocal ground. The singer's firm control and impressive presence carried over to the final scene, an epic dialogue with Kate (Katherine Pracht) that led to him being dared all the way to his death. She challenges Owen to sleep in the haunted room of the family manor Paramore. He faces this challenge but does not survive it.

Bass-baritone Matthew Curran brought a beautiful, round sonority to Coyle, the military instructor whose entire purpose in life is to prepare young men to throw themselves into the chum factory that is industrialized warfare. Coyle is a powerful authority figure who seems racked with doubt by Owen's sudden change of heart. Tenor Rufus Müller played both the role of the Narrator and Owen's cantankerous father. The latter's response to his son's newfound pacifist tendencies is to disown him at the family banquet. Maybe some traditions are better left in the dust.

Expert support was provided by tenor Bernard Holcomb as Owen's friend and fellow student Lechmere. Emily Pulley and Janice Hall played Ms. Wingrave and Mrs. Coyle, roles that involve a lot of tut-tutting and fretting about what's to be done with their Owen. Adding to the haunting effect was the use of a small children's chorus, repeating the motif that haunts the Wingrave family and leads young Owen to his doom. Their appearance at the start of Act II and return at the end of the second bookended what little action there was, suggesting that the vicious Wingrave cycle of war and death will ultimately start over.

This was a spare and minimal production by Philip Shneidman, set (as a good ghost story should be) on a dark and menacing set by Josh Smith. Three surfaces above the acting area were used as a projection surface for the Wingrave family portraits. The colors of these shifted throughout the opera, eerie and menacing at some points and innocuous at others. The simple props included antique tables and chairs were ideally placed, giving the effect of a discount version of Downton Abbey. The costumes by Lara de Brujn were similarly appropriate.

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