OWEN WINGRAVE (Baritone), SPENCER COYLE (Bass-Baritone), LECHMERE (Tenor), MISS WINGRAVE (dramatic soprano), MRS COYLE (soprano), MRS JULIAN (soprano), KATE (mezzo-soprano), GENERAL SIR PHILIP WINGRAVE (tenor), NARRATOR (tenor), DISTANT CHORUS (trebles), COLONEL WINGRAVE (silent role), YOUNG WINGRAVE (silent role)
1(=picc)1(=ca)1(=bcl)1(=cbsn) - 1110 - perc(2): timp/glsp/xyl/vib/tuned bell/tamb/cyms/susp.cym/whip/wdbl/2 gong/2 SD/TD/tom-t/BD - pno - strings
Commissioned by The Royal Opera House, Owen Wingrave was specifically conceived and composed as an opera for television. Although Britten had expressed reservations about the viability of opera on the small screen, it was the highly successful filming of Peter Grimes for BBC TV in 1969 that convinced him of its possibilities and he subsequently took up the challenge. First broadcast in May 1971, the work makes use of several televisial techniques such as cross-cutting, montage and flashback. Subsequent stage productions have, however, proved the work to be no less viable in live performance than any other of Britten’s operas. Like The Turn of the Screw, the work is based on a story by Henry James. The story of a young man who, groomed for military career, rebels against his family for whom soldiering is a way of life provided Britten with an ideal opportunity to make a public statement of his deeply held pacifist beliefs. Far from being mere propaganda however, Owen Wingrave is a characteristically rich and multi-layered work, the supreme irony of Owen’s predicament being that in his battle with his own family, he shows himself to be just as much of a fighter as his warmongering ancestors.
The scoring of Owen Wingrave, like that of Death in Venice, is closer to Britten's chamber operas - Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw - than to Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. So it was relatively straightforward to make a reduction from the original double woodwind, seven brass, three percussion, harp, piano and strings to an ensemble of 15 players - single wind, horn, trumpet and trombone, two percussion, piano and string quintet. There is no chorus, and the intimacy of the story suits chamber forces. The elaborate percussion part had to be scaled down, and the original harp and piano parts combined into one; but in general there was very little that I had to omit, and I think that the overall sound remains authentic.
(Matthews worked closely with Benjamin Britten between 1966 and 1970. As well as being a composer he is a practised orchestrator and arranger.)