Opera's stylized staging of a Henry James story

Baritone Julian Arsenault in the rotating title role of the production by the and Opera Philadelphia. Curtis Institute of Music
Baritone Julian Arsenault in the rotating title role of the production by the and Opera Philadelphia. Curtis Institute of Music (Curtis Institute of Music)
Posted: March 15, 2013

When an opera's producers aren't fully confident that the score has enough to hold the audience, nervousness tends to dart across the footlights in needy little spasms. At Owen Wingrave on Wednesday at the Perelman Theater, such manifestations were distracting.

Composer Benjamin Britten's reworking of Henry James' 32-page story was a notable early avatar of our small-screen era. Conceived for a premiere in 1971 on TV, it was perfect for the medium. James' plot is concise - a scion in a long line of military men turns out to be a pacifist, haunted by relatives living and dead - so the development is found in the characterizations.

The current production by first-time opera director Daniel Fish, a joint effort by the Curtis Institute of Music and Opera Philadelphia, tries to preserve the TV aspect, even venturing onto the big screen. Rather than James' country manse, we are in the United States, perhaps in the 1970s. Or now. Guns hound young Owen. There is a Sandy Hook element here, and, to judge by the huge black-and-white photos of businessmen looming over the stage in place of ancestral portraits, the corporatization of war.

All this is extremely stylish. And if the bold visuals had ended more or less there, one would have had a straight shot to this production's considerable strengths: an expert and enormously colorful Curtis Chamber Orchestra led by George Manahan; a Philadelphia Boys Choir that achieved the purest contrast to family rage; and a cast that, at the very least, conquered difficult pitch and ensemble calculations and, in a few cases, outright nailed subtle characterizations with their voices. Baritone Julian Arsenault as Owen (the cast rotates) is something special, his sound rich with overtones and pockets of color. His friend Lechmere was sung by Spencer Lang, Kate by Jazimina MacNeil, Miss Wingrave by Shir Rozzen - all solid and, in various ways, insightful. Bass-baritone Andrew Bogard, as Owen's military coach, Spencer Coyle, balanced outward authority with an underlying sympathy for his student.

But you had to shut out a lot. The twirling text projections seemed lifted from Willy Wonka. Owen's punching bag, the considerable stage energy he drew by bringing a microwave oven onto the stage (not to mention the popcorn smell drifting into the audience), one character's stripping down to her leopard-print bra and slip - these sometimes drew audience laughter.

A little wisdom could have separated the pretentious from the genuinely meaningful. A projected digital clock ticking down to the story's sudden, enigmatic ending is timed to Britten's string pizzicatos. Eerie, how it builds tension without growing faster or louder. It was a perceptive way to underline the music.

Britten's score is full of such opportunities. They exist still, like so many ghosts ready to be stirred by the right medium.

Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Information: 215-893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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