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Britten Owen Wingrave
Documentary The Hidden Heart

Gerald Finley, Martyn Hill, Josephine Barstow, Charlotte Hellekant, Elizabeth Gale etc German Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Kent Nagano

Arthaus DVD 100 372 [16:9, 92' + 66']

Owen Wingrave, never a favourite in the Britten opera canon, disappointed me on its second TV realisation from Germany, as transferred from Channel 4 to DVD.

It is very much a tele film, restless in the camera work, with over-familiar devices (artistic backgrounds, voice over, visions of the past including ghosts using black and white and sepia etc for enhanced effect).

It is a worthy anti-war story, based on a Henry James ghost story of 1892, about a conscientious objector and outsider, rejected and disinherited by his caricatured military family.The military academy lecture room and stately house are updated to the 1950s, but Myfanwy Piper's libretto remains a severe stumbling block; the story, an all too obvious one, is told slowly with excessive emphasis in delivery and with all concerned in close-ups. At home there are mostly women - many of the men had been slaughtered for their Country - and dinner table outrage against the renegade is expressed in the presence of deferential servants of Upstairs Downstairs ilk. Gerald Finley sings well and copes with the remorseless close-ups and there is a scarifying ensemble of recrimination.

Volkmar Fischer's notes remind us that television viewing is 4/5 seeing and 1/5 listening. Owen Wingrave is attentively directed by Margaret Williams with all the period detail right; there are two pages of production credits reflecting the complexity of television nostalgia.

The emphasis is however too much on the acting singers, too concerned that every word gets across (they are duplicated anyhow on the subtitles). The score, displaying aspects of twelve-tone technique with a large chamber orchestra of 46, is potentially the most interesting aspect of the opera, but loses out with balance slightly over-favouring the singers. You can sample the original recording on line.

Others may take a very different view of this new representation of Britten's opera, first shown to home viewers in 1970. But everyone will agree that the accompanying one-hour documentary The Hidden Heart which concentrates on Peter Grimes, the War Requiem and Death in Venice is superb - sensitive and not at all evading the sexual aspects of the love relationship between Pears and Britten which inspired the series of masterworks that reflect the composer's complex life. It takes us through the changing fortunes of an outsider who became a pillar of the establishment but whose dominance receded in his last years beset by illness.

This documentary may tip the balance and justify purchase even for Britten sceptics. For a more contemporary anti-war opera, albeit based likewise on a historical tale, I would direct you instead to Henze's Der Prinz von Homburg.

© Peter Grahame Woolf