Monday, May 18, 2009

Blog Exclusive Review: Owen Wingrave at Chicago Opera Theater

Mrs. Julian (Brenda Harris), General Sir Philip Wingrave (Robin Leggate), Miss Wingrave (Mary Jane Johnson), and Kate Julian (Jennifer Johnson) scold Owen Wingrave (Matthew Worth) in Chicago Opera Theater's Owen Wingrave. Photo by Liz Lauren.

An opera without its central character is in serious trouble. But don't cast stones at Matthew Worth, the capable singer portraying the title role in Owen Wingrave, Benjamin Britten's 1971 opera now onstage at Chicago Opera Theater. It would take a genius performer to create a compelling character from the cipher at the center of Myfawy Piper's libretto. 

Based on a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave tells the story of the scion of a famous military family who announces, while at military school, that he has become a pacifist. Not only does he refuse to go to war, he believes that war itself is criminal. In his family and era (late Victorian) this is downright horrifying. Unfortunately, the audience never understands what led Owen to change his mind, or how he feels about going against his family. (He's also going against potential fiancee Kate, but the lack of chemistry between Worth and Jennifer Johnson indicates that he isn't too worried about that.) Owen's only sustained self-expression comes in an Act 2 aria that reaches the heights of cliche in its paean to the beauty of peace.

If the audience doesn't understand who Owen is or why he does what he does, they have precious little reason to care what happens to him. It doesn't help that Owen's arguments with his family are repetitive--the characters never seem to communicate or even change tactics, just shout the same things repeatedly. This may be true to how families argue, but it is mighty trying to watch.

But what of the music? What of the singing? I'll be the first to admit no expertise in operatic music, or any particular knowledge of Britten, but here goes: this work (written for television near the end of Britten's career) shows a clear atonal influence. This is not in itself a problem--Britten creates snatches of stunning music. The problem is that whenever something exciting starts to happen, it ends almost immediately. The pieces of interesting music seem to get lost, because they never develop into anything coherent. There may be an excellent reason for this fragmentation, but it gets in the way of the audience's emotional involvement, at least on first listen.

Conductor Steuart Bedford is a Britten expert--in fact, he conducted the original television production of Owen Wingrave--and he leads orchestra and singers through a confident performance of an exceptionally challenging score (though the orchestra drowned out the singers for the first 20 minutes or so). The cast were particularly impressive for their ensemble work--this is not an opera that allows for diva moments.

Ken Cazan's production doesn't solve the work's dramatic problems, and creates a few of its own. For instance, the set changes are performed by supernumeraries dressed in identical "old man" costumes, wigs, and makeup. The idea may be to represent the repressive conformity and weight of tradition in the Wingrave family home, but the costumes are so obviously fake that the overall effect is comic. The other production choices may not be so wrongheaded, but they are often uninspired. There are a few impressive stage pictures, but the production rarely leaps from the stage.

Chicago Opera Theater claims to produce operas that are compelling dramatically as well as musically, to present opera that is also theatre. It's the reason they invited a theatre critic such as myself to the show. They are admirable for reaching in to dark corners of the operatic repertory to produce works that might otherwise remain unseen. This approach often pays dividends, but this time they've ended up with exactly the musically impressive but emotionally remote evening that the company endeavors to avoid.

Owen Wingrave runs May 20, 22, 26 at 7:30 PM and May 24 at 3:00 PM at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, 205 E Randolph St in Chicago. Tickets, $30-$120, can be purchased online at and by phone at 312-704-8414

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