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Successful Production of Britten Rarity

Harris Theater
05/16/2009 -  and May 20, 22, 24, 26
Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave
Matthew Worth (Owen Wingrave), Matt Boehler (Spencer Coyle), Brian Anderson (Lechmere), Mary Jane Johnson (Miss Wingrave), Rebecca Caine (Mrs. Coyle), Brenda Harris (Mrs. Julian), Jennifer Johnson (Kate Julian), Robin Leggate (General Sir Philip Wingrave)
Steuart Bedford (conductor)
Ken Cazan (stage director), Peter Harrison (set designer), Jacqueline Saint-Anne (costume designer), Keith Parham (lighting designer)

M. Worth & R. Leggate (© Liz Lauren )

The young cast leading Chicago Opera Theater’s season ending production of Owen Wingrave barely garnered enough publicity to fill the Harris Theater halfway on opening night. Those in attendance, however, were treated to a Britten rarity with a solid young cast and conductor without peer in Britten’s oeuvre.

Brian Dickie’s company takes much pride in showcasing emerging artists; this group of singers mostly reflected that mission. Baritone Matthew Worth gave a moving performance as Owen. Worth has the ideal Britten light lyric baritone for Wingrave, Billy Budd, and Ned Keene—on opening night, he showed an easy, clear top and a solid low range without too much heft in the middle. He sang Owen’s second act aria effortlessly and his light voice rang throughout the theater with ease. The rest of the cast did their jobs, but Worth relished being the standout and was rewarded deservedly with a hefty ovation.

COT regular Matt Boehler was a reliable Coyle. The bass sang with a warm sound throughout his range despite the fact that his top was a bit thin. Boehler’s on stage wife, soprano Rebecca Caine, showed a clear, light soprano in her supporting role as Mrs. Coyle. The three women of Paramore sang well together but only Jennifer Johnson as Kate Julian stood out. Johnson’s warm mezzo was a perfect contrast to Worth’s Wingrave, and their duet in the second act brought out the most inspired singing of the night. It would be unfair to say that any of these singers are the next superstars of the opera world, but they should have successful careers.

Stage director Ken Cazan made a wise choice in not updating his production of Owen Wingrave. Given the nature of the story line, Cazan could have made any number of political statements, but it would have been difficult to portray the family conflicts suffered by Owen in a credible fashion to a contemporary audience. The fact that Britten created the opera for television presents some problems for any would-be director of Owen Wingrave since the original BBC production included studio recordings and amplification over dream-like scenes. Cazan didn’t stray too far from this idea, notably during the first scene of the second act in which the director employed extensive use of amplification. Cazan could have found a way to avoid microphones, but the overall effect was positive. The director made some perplexing choices in other places, however, including an overabundance of slow-motion choreography that induced more laughter than thought. Cazan also watered down what is generally a serious opera with campy scene changes (supers in military uniform hopping about in unison as they moved furniture). Lastly, Cazan played down Kate’s flirtation with Lechmere so much that her true motive (highlighting Owen’s faults) became almost non-existent. Her flirting with Lechmere should be an obvious affront to Owen, showing the audience that the pair has a history together. Unfortunately, her flirtation with Lechmere appeared mostly independent and spontaneous with no intent of taunting Owen, making their amorous duet in the second act somewhat confusing.

The paltry turn-out to opening night was an unfortunate slap in the face to expert Britten conductor Steuart Bedford, who led the COT orchestra in a highly successful and passionate performance. Bedford, who knew Britten personally, led a lively reading of the score, bringing out nuances of the composer’s orchestration often lost on other conductors. Despite his world renowned prowess in Britten’s repertoire, Bedford made sure to be attentive first and foremost to his singers and was careful not to overpower them.

Chicago Opera Theater has a strong and worthwhile production in its Owen Wingrave. Despite some odd directorial choices, the young singers and luxuriously cast conductor proved on opening night that Britten’s lesser known works are no less riveting than his masterpieces and deserve just as much attention.

Paul Wooley



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