Monday, October 24, 2016


Tudor Feudalism Exposed, Rejected, Brexit Before Brexit


This opera was written and composed for the BBC, hence as a television opera in 1971, a long time still before high definition. The medium imposed some strict limitations and they are used more than tolerated all along. The first one is the narrow and shallow range of the TV camera and screen. The opera is systematically shot inside rather small rooms entirely closed up. In the same way this medium could not overload the picture with a lot of details and props and sure enough the setting is not overloaded and when the audience is supposed to look at a detail in the picture the camera zooms onto it and it becomes a close-up shot. That is typical with the portraits at the beginning. We are shown them one after the other in chronological order and with a zooming movement onto one section of them when necessary.

The second element that is typical of television (or cinema actually) is the editing of the whole opera. By editing you can shift from one setting to another without any kind of loss of time or movement. You can thus shift from one character’s close-up shot to another character’s close-up shot without any movement of the camera. That gives dynamism and flexibility to the visual story because television like cinema is telling us a visual story. Think of the various settings that do not have to me materially changed on the stage.

The third element that is used all along is the fact that due to the low definition of television in those days if you wanted to show the feelings and emotions of the characters you had to give a close-up shot of their faces, which implied the actors, and in this case singers too, had to work on their facial language, part of the general body language. On a stage the body language is essentially carried by the general movement of the body or of the limbs, particularly the arms. At the same time it also uses the general posture of the body and particularly the position and direction/orientation of the head.. On television the general posture is not that interesting because we can have closer shots that can focus on the face with eventually the eyes looking straight at the audience (meaning the camera), the upper half of the body, one arm movement, a hand even, etc. I must say that in this production the actors-singers are rather stiff in their general postures and movements but they have worked a lot on their facial expressions, which are rather secondary on an opera stage, even if the spectators have binoculars.

A last note on this DVD is that it must have been re-mastered and enhanced for modern big TV screen. We cannot know what receiving it on the small screens of the time could have been. Note though color TV had already arrived though the majority of TV sets must have been black and white. Color TV was introduced on BBC 2 for Wimbledon coverage on Saturday, July 1, 1967. The launch of the BBC 2 full color service took place on December 2, 1967. Some British TV programs, however, had been produced in color even before the introduction of color television in 1967, for the purpose of sales to American, Canadian, and Filipino networks. Full-time color broadcasts had been running since 1969. Full nationwide color broadcasting was achieved in 1976. This opera was thus received in black and white by a vast proportion of people either because their territory was not covered or because they did not have a color TV. And actually this production works a lot on darker colors that would have appeared as close to black or dark grey on a black and white set, at least many shades of grey. The amount of brown and even dark brown is extremely important.

The last element is at the level of special effects. This production only uses fading in and fading out as an editing technique that is slightly softer than cut and paste, particularly to change from one scene to another or one moment in one scene to the next. The other special effect is the blurring out of the picture around the face of a character to express the inner language of the character who is thus speaking to himself or herself and not to the other people on the stage. It isolates each character.

I insisted here on some of the technical means used in this production that cannot be used on an opera stage and are also adapted to the low definition of the TV picture at the time. A cinema production would gave been quite different because of the high definition of the cinema picture. I also believe a TV production today would be different because of the high definition of the digital TV image. The opera was probably shot with cinema standards, particularly the camera.

Without planning on exploiting the whole plot because I have already said a lot about it when analyzing the libretto (see ISBN-13: 978-0571515424 on, &, I will insist here on the opera in this very production considering it was the original vision Benjamin Britten had since it was done with him.

The Prelude or Overture of the first act introduces us to the various pictures of ancestors hanging in the hall of Paramore. But instead of having a travelling picture we have a shift from one to the next and the camera stops on each one to have a full vision of each picture and at the same time zooms onto the top section of the body of some pictures. The names and dates of each picture is provided super-impressed onto the picture itself for a short instant, but long enough for us to be able to read them. It is interesting to list them.

The first is Owain Wynegrave in 1536. Nothing before though in the opera many mentions are made of medieval battles in France or elsewhere like Agincourt (1415), though not Bouvines (1214). This date of 1536 is essential in British history. It is the year Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife died, but also the year when Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife was executed in the Tower of London, and also the year when Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. And apart from this marital story of Henry VIII we should consider this year as important since it is the year of the first Suppression of Religious Houses Act. It is the birth date of modern England. This family is thus attached to Tudor history and it will be an essential military asset to the English Crown.

The second is Sir Philip Wingrave in 1576. Then we have Lady Wingrave in 1576, Edward Owen Wingrave in 1629, Colonel Sir Philip Wingrave and Owen Wingrave, his son, in 1652. In this last picture the camera zooms onto the faces and ends on the child’s face. We will learn at the beginning of the second act what happened then. Note 1652 is under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, so what was the position of the family dedicated to the Crown of England and not the Commonwealth? This question will not be answered. Henry James had simply situated the death of this Owen in the 18th century, hence in an easier period.

The sixth picture is Colonel Oliver Wingrave in 1670 (is that Oliver a homage to Oliver Cromwell?). Then we have Jane Wingrave in 1745, General Sir Humphrey Wingrave in 1780, General Sir Philip Wingrave in 1832 with a zooming movement onto his face (he is the grandfather of the main character and he is still alive in the opera) and finally Colonel Oliver Wingrave zoomed onto by the camera (the father of the main character) who has the face of this main character and we shift directly onto Owen Wingrave in his military prep class in London. It is important to say that the father died in Afghanistan and the mother died in childbirth immediately afterwards when giving birth to a still born son in India. Owen Wingrave is thus the last son of the family with no hope to get another one, hence he is the one who is supposed to assume the continuation of the family, hence of their “profession” as top officers of the royal military forces. This position is not inherited. It has to be earned through a military academy and field service in various wars. At the time of Owen Wingrave it would be India or South Africa or some other colonies. Note the only ones quoted are Afghanistan and India.

Apart from the fate of the father and mother we have all these details from the very start with this gallery of portraits. We also know that the 1652 portrait must be a special case since it is the only one with a father and a son and the son does not have his own independent picture. Because of this duality in the picture itself, the absence of the son’s autonomous picture and the first zooming movement of the camera our attention is focused on them.

This opening and the whole opera actually makes the feudal dictatorship of an aristocratic family on all the descendants absolutely central. A child has no choice whatsoever and he or she has to do what the family decides. As for a boy, the central figure here, he has to follow the line of the clan and in this case it is to have a military career at the service of the Crown.  There is no escape from that. In a way or another a son is to be a soldier and the play shows with cruelty that this son has the courage of any other in the family and that nothing frightens him. He can take any dare and go through it. But unluckily the dare will lead him to die. The dare was motivated by his refusal to be a soldier and he will die like a soldier in the face of danger, here the curse of the family since 1652: an Owen Wingrave fights or dies. If he dies when fighting, that’s glorious. If he dies when not fighting, that’s cowardly, shameful, etc. You have to die on the battlefield or not at all, well nearly not at all at least.

That’s what this opera is all about: the rebellion of a son in the name of free choice, hence of freedom, and the impossibility for these feudal aristocratic families to accept such a freedom. Note a daughter would have to marry the soldier her family would choose, full stop, period, that’s the end of it. We just wonder why Miss Wingrave is not the widow of a military man. In fact she nearly is and is paying back for this treachery by taking care of the widow of the military man she should have married, and their daughter, Kate, promised to marry Owen.

It is true that Benjamin Britten puts some flesh on the antimilitary discourse and Owen particularly, but not only him, expresses some arguments against war, a lot more anyway than in Henry James’ novella. That discourse is in line with what Benjamin Britten expressed in many of his operas or vocal works, but it is not for me the central element. The central element is the denunciation of feudal practices in some aristocratic circles and such practices are at least partially true. The Tudors have deeply impressed their mark on England and probably Great Britain.

What is interesting though is that in this opera, like in so many others; the character who dies in this case, who is rejected in other cases, who even manage to escape in a couple of cases, is estranged in his own family, is abducted by ideas he found in books and in his heart, is made a foreigner and a stranger in his own clan or circle. He is disinherited, which is here a lot stronger than in Henry James novella because in the novella he kept his mother’s inheritance, a yearly £300 pension, which was rather acceptable for the 1890s. Here nothing, nothing at all. The denunciation of the tyrannical power of the grandfather is extreme, singing his accusations and sentence from behind closed doors: what a voice!

I would like to insist on one more element. When Owen arrives home in Paramore he is received by a triplet of women who all denounce his horrific rebellion in the strongest terms they can find. One is his aunt and the others are Mrs. Julian, the widow of the other soldier who could have married Miss Wingrave if she had not cancelled it at the last minute, and Kate Julian, the promised wife of Owen. The three of them are three weird sisters that are literally bullying and haunting Owen in some kind of ambush where he cannot even defend himself since they are women. Later on a fourth women will appear, Mrs. Coyle and she will defend or at least understand Owen’s motivations.

This hostile triplet of harpies are definitely an allusion to the three witches of Macbeth. Owen is saved from the criminal act of becoming a soldier thanks to the fourth woman who provides him with some support but at the same time the youngest of the three, Kate Julian will coil her hostile embrace onto and around Owen to the point of forcing him to confront the haunting ghost from 1652 by accusing him of being a coward. This is surprising in Britten’s operas because he generally gives a more balanced vision of women but in this one Mrs. Coyle is unable to prevent the snake of a girlfriend Kate from killing her own promised husband. Death in other words does part them before they ever had one single little chance to be married.

Is Benjamin Britten keeping some hope in such an opera? I am afraid hope is not on the syllabus or the agenda. If there were any hope it would be on Mrs. Coyle side but she is powerless and anyway totally marginal on the question. There is in such families a curse running from generation to generation and they have no hope to ever break that curse. They will die off because the last male in the family has just died, but they will not accept any change in their lot or future. Better die than change. It sounds like Brexit. Theresa May must be the Tudor monarch some accuse her of being.

A last remark on the music. The Schönbergian twelve tone scale is extremely effective to create some disquieting, disturbing and even dis-balancing music and atmosphere. The music emphasizes the basic maelstrom in the psyche of Owen and in the situation in the opera. The music is part of the discourse, of the accusation that is needed to bring these last elements of feudalism down, though that will not happen inside the plot. Note the hammered percussion “nightmare rhythm” present in the prelude is perfect to emphasize the shift from one picture to the next, hence the family curse, the family dictatorship.

The second element I would like to insist on is the ballad at the beginning of the second act; This ballad is crucial for the plot since it tells us the full story of the 1652 Owen who was killed by his father. Behind this ballad we have a film in sepia colors that gives us the situation in mute visual form: Owen, the son, confronted to another boy his age who is bullying him in a way refuses to fight against nthe bully, thus stepping back and away from a challenge. His father sees it from an upper floor window and chastises him, punishes him by killing him, first end of the story. Unluckily the father will die without any wound next to his murdered son. After such a drama you may wonder how the family managed to survive. But in those days there were many children.

What is beautiful in this ballad is the music that is different. It might be in a church mode, the mode in G (not for ghost as Hubert Teyssandier suggested), but what is essential is that the rhythm of the music is regular with stanzas and burdens. The burden is the same all along: “Trumpet blow, trumpet blow, Paramore shall welcome woe.” This chorus is the most pessimistic and submissive expression of fate. You “obey, believe, accept” in this family and in that order. Obey first and believe and accept afterwards, believe you were right and accept all consequences. In a military family death is an honor, death is a glorious event for the one who dies and for all his relatives. That ballad form is making this story from 1652 a popular, light though somber and in a way religious evocation. But be sure that mode G is not any Gregorian song or tune. It is only medieval, hence religious, since most music was religious in the Middle Ages, because that’s the way music was composed before the invention of the modern scale and all the tones attached to it.

A lot more would have to be said but let’s conclude with this idea: Benjamin Britten has revived a rather mediocre or average story by Henry James in which the ghost element was hardly present and he has made it a modern tale about freedom, the freedom of choice of children in their families. Once gain, the antimilitary tone and arguments are only a second garb for the story, certainly not the major one. A great opera that could be a deep ethical lesson for boys essentially, but also for girls, and how they have to accept to fight for their freedom if they just want to escape the worst possible fate and future of submission and mental if not social slavery.


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