BENJAMIN BRITTEN –
MYFANWY PIPER – LIBRETTO – 1970
The libretto of this opera is
rather simple, maybe too simple. We are at the crossroads between the past and the future in an old
feudal noble family. The main quality of this libretto is the fact that the
main hero is not alone but surrounded by others with whom he is systematically
First his friend and co-student
in military art Lechmere under the authority of their military instructor,
Coyle; Lechmere is enthusiastic about becoming a soldier whereas Owen Wingrave
refuses to do that in spite of the tradition in his family. I must admit that
the name “Wingrave” is rather surprising for a serious subject: soldiers are
all people who only win graves for other people and for themselves.
The instructor is against Owen’s
choice of course, since it is his trade to train him to be a soldier. His wife
is rather more open to Owen’s decision not to become an authorized and
encouraged if not lauded killer. The emphasis is put on that side of the
argument. Owen will be accused of being a coward but he refuses the accusation:
he does not refuse to be a soldier because he is afraid of dying, but because
he refuses to kill, even enemies.
Then he is confronted to his
family in the family castle which is, we are revealed, haunted by an older case
of the same type when a father punished his son who refused to fight against a
friend who had insulted him in a way or another by locking him up in a certain
room. The boy is killed by a blow to the head and the father dies on his son’s
dead body in the aforesaid room.
Everyone in the family is against
Owen’s decision. Owen has no freedom of choice. He is supposed to do what his
family has decided he should do. He is to be a soldier, like it or not. He is
predestined to be a soldier by the century old tradition of his feudal family.
That goes as far as a
confrontation with the head of the family, an uncle or something, who
disinherit Owen. He becomes an outcast. His own friend Lechmere then at once
courts his girlfriend Kate Julian who is yielding to the courtship with no
charm at all but with speed and greed. Yet she wants to provoke Owen and she
dares him to spend the night in the haunted room and she locks him in it after
he accepts the dare.
Yet, strangely enough, Lechmere
in the middle of the night comes to Coyle and his wife to tell them what
happened and the dare that Owen accepted. They all rush to the room where they
find Kate who was having some kind of pangs of conscience and the truth is
clear: the curse of the room has worked. Owen is dead. The opera ends up
strangely with an exclamation from the uncle “My boy!” that could be
interpreted in many ways and the narrator brings up the idea that one cannot
escape one’s destiny and Owen died a soldier fighting against a curse in the
family. Fighting against the curse but losing and dying.
This ending is too schematic to
really know how Owen felt. We are missing a scene: the confrontation of Owen
with the ghost and the curse. This story was initially written by Henry James and
it is one more ghost story and his version has to be examined and compared to
But this libretto shows several
simple ideas that make the ghost story an extremely bleak family story. The
haunting son and father are not seen as ghosts at all but is seen in a portrait
in the hall showing the father and the son when they were alive and in harmony,
so before the crisis. The ghost story is then nothing but a family story to
keep the sons in line with their duty.
The second element is that it is
the girl, Kate, who dares Owen to dare the ghost and the curse. Once again the
girl, young and “innocent,” at least as innocent as the paper on which a crime
story is printed, is the agent of the death of the young man. It is the same
pattern as in the Turn of the Screw. The girl believes in the curse because it
is the way to bring Owen back in line and thus back to her, and that reveals
her greedy nature, her possessive nature.
The strangest part is the role of
the friend Lechmere. He at first took advantage of the situation and then was
taken by some remorse as if he wanted the girl but not over a body. We can’t
really say the young man is a real friend since his pangs of conscience are
very distant as for the cause of them. He does not give a damn about Owen. He
just does not want Kate with the haunting guilt that she is forever going to
experience: she killed her own betrothed.
This opera is supposed to be
anti-military. This side of the story is certainly not the most important side.
It is the denunciation of any family rule that does not leave the children,
here the sons, free to choose what they want to be, become and do in life. There
you have a vast theme in Benjamin Britten’s operas. Owen becomes a rejected
outcast and stranger in his own family because he wants to be free and choose
his own future. That’s a lot more interesting than being against war even in
1970 when an indecent monstrous war was going on in Vietnam, especially since the vast
majority of the drafted GIs and of the casualties were black or from ethnic minorities,
certainly not from the big families who managed to keep their sons away, to
protect them from becoming soldiers. But did the other draftees have any choice
at all? They had to go and accept death as the main reward for it.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU