Magazine article The Spectator

Ingeniously Inventive

Magazine article The Spectator

Ingeniously Inventive

Article excerpt

Opera on television has always seemed inherently problematic, to the point where I have sometimes felt that the most one could hope for from it was the adumbration of a satisfactory experience in the theatre, or the reminiscence of one. There is the problem of close-ups, embarrassing if the singer-actor is in full cry, annoying if he or she is letting fly vocally but obviously not actually singing before the camera. There is the irritation of not having much choice about which aspects of the stage to look at at any moment, which makes repeated viewing of even the best-shot opera wearisome, as listening to the same recording repeatedly is not, unless overused. Then there is the further question of whether it is better to remain studio- or stage-bound, or to set works on location. The latter option strikes me a priori as a bad idea, because it stresses the artificiality of opera, reraising a question one had long ago banished as naive: why are they all singing?

I'm delighted to report that these doubts and problems, and others too, have been swept aside by a viewing of Channel Four's new production of Britten's penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, which was written for television and originally broadcast by the BBC in May 1971. That was so dismal an experience that I haven't seen or heard the piece since. In fact I was dreading the new TV production, and am amazed by the sureness of its touch, which means that the 100 minutes of the work pass very fast and compellingly, though fundamental questions about the validity of its message remain. The action is updated to 1958, for no particular reason, but it does little harm, except that references to sword-fighting sound quaint. Since the subject is pacifism, it is as relevant at one time as another.

The 1971 production was claustrophobically set in a studio, which may have been good for some scenes but overall made for unconvincing TV. This one ranges from a military academy to Horse Guards Parade, and to the country home of the Wingraves. The problem of close-ups of singing is successfully solved by having it partially presented as interior monologue, while when the singers are mouthing they look natural but not grotesque. The photography is imaginative and often strikingly beautiful, the musical and dramatic performances mainly excellent, and the conducting of Kent Nagano outstanding. …

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