Four women in drab 19th Century finery that makes them look ever funeral ready (Costume Design: Lara De Bruijn), look out from their seats at the drawing room table and sing “Scruples, scruples, scruples…” like parlour room mina birds of another time. It’s an opera moment so unique that it might even be comical, were the music not so pleasing and the dramatic moment so obviously serious.
For this writer it was also an oasis in the libretto by Myfanwy Piper where we knew exactly what words were being sung ,and a moment where we could settle back a tad in our seats taking a break from straining to follow the narrative. In truth though, it was difficult to tell if these soprano and mezzo-soprano voices were scolding, mocking or just having a Greek chorus moment to frame the action for us. Like many a Benjamin Britten opera and other English language operas, some, like this writer, will crave the same overhead projection of the libretto we get spoiled with in foreign language opera performances.
Little Opera Theatre of New York (LOTNY) Shows How Creative Stagecraft Matters
If projected words would interfere with the projection designs by Alex Bosco Koch in this production though, let’s be thankful Director Philip Shneidman does not go there! This is a story of how title character Owen Wingrave (on opening night sung in a captivating performance by baritone Robert Balonek) goes against his family’s long line of ancestors who all served in the military for family name and glory. Koch gets us to see this march of ancestors zooming us in on one or another portrait along with the story’s many references to Owen’s forebears. These projections would be standouts on any set, by this writer’s lights, but in the context of the barely there set or staging possible in the warehouse space in DUMBO’s GK Arts Center it is especially powerful. Similarly, Scenic and Lighting Designer Josh Smith’s use of spotlights on soloists sitting around the dining room table as they take aria turns sharing their inner life thoughts seems a masterstroke. These production details seem to aptly show how in the hands of the Little Opera Theatre of New York (LOTNY) little touches can loom quite LARGE.
Britten’s compelling score, performed under the baton of Richard Cordova, is the main reason why a schedule juggle to catch one of the remaining performances of this opera, and to snag a stage right seat is RECOMMENDED. The fifteen orchestra members often seem to be a larger number. You find yourself looking over to see who is making the score’s affect come alive with bassoon, clarinet, horn, etc. They are not distracted by the stream of singers moving on and off the stage through their chairs, but for some, like this writer, this on-off procession through the orchestra pit adds to the production’s intimate soiree feel. From a stage right seat you also get to see how the percussionists create the xylophone flourishes that at times help convey a ghost story feel. Though there is nothing lacking in the vocal performances, the chances to hear Britten’s music unadorned by voices happily snaps focus back to the small orchestra and Cordova in the stage right pit.
For those of us alive during the anti-war movement of the 60’s, the conscientious objector antiwar theme of Owen Wingrave, actually based on a short story by Henry James, will be a reminder of what now feels like simpler times. This opera was commissioned by the BBC (Benjamin Britten, music; Myfanwy Piper libretto) in the early days of the Vietnam War taking over the headlines. How quaint to remember when families were divided over ethical fault lines, compared to the raging family battles today over “alternative facts”.
Owen Wingrave is especially recommended for anyone interested in how the opera art form can be creatively presented outside the big budget productions of the world’s large opera houses like the Met. It probably is not a top pick for newbies to opera.
This review is now added to the Picture This Post's OPERAS WE LOVE - roundup.
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About the Author: Amy Munice
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.