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Owen Wingrave is the story of a young man: Owen, the last of the Wingraves, a family of ancient military heritage. The hopes of the Wingraves are now all centred on Owen. But he questions the doubtful traditions of his family and, in the face of their disapproval, even hatred, proves himself as strong as any of his forebears.
The opera begins with a Prelude of music associated with the harsh traditions and expectations of the Win graves and their ancestors, seen as a succession of portraits at Paramore, the family’s country seat.
Spencer Coyle is a well-known and sympathetic crammer of young men seeking entrance co military academy. It is at his home in London chat the scene opens: he is instructing Owen and Lechmere, Owen’s best friend and fellow-pupil, on the strategy of the Battle of Austerlitz. The lesson ends and, in the face of Lechmere’s brash enthusiasm for the excitement of war, Owen unexpectedly condemns the military leaders and the resulting waste of life. Left alone with an amazed and perturbed Coyle, Owen tells him that he does nor intend co proceed with his training. Coyle is persuaded to visit Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt who has brought him up, and to explain why this most promising pupil no longer believes in the family’s military traditions.
Sitting in Hyde Park, Owen clarifies his determination not to become a soldier. He is greatly relieved to have broached the subject and feels sure chat his family will appreciate why he is now fighting for his own ideals. Meanwhile, Miss Wingrave greets Coyle’s news without enthusiasm. She confirms the family’s intentions of a military career for Owen-anything else is unthinkable. She and Owen have a common vision of military glory (the Horse Guards riding through the Park) but in Owen’s case the glory is overshadowed by images of defeat and bloodshed. The scene ends with another Interlude, while Owen reads a passage from Shelley’s Queen Mab which echoes his own feelings on the subject of war.
Over sherry before dinner, the warm and charming Mrs Coyle is faced with Owen’s unorthodox and potentially embarrassing ideas. She wonders how she would react were a son of hers to be in the same position. Coyle and Lechmere are both worried chat Owen’s refusal may be interpreted by his family as dishonourable. Coyle is able to appreciate Owen’s point of view but feels himself committed to changing Owen’s mind. Owen, however, is determined that the family will have to fall in with his ideas.
At Paramore, the three ladies of the household are waiting for Owen to come down from London. They voice their own opinions of the matter individually and in concert: when he comes he will have to listen to the house of his ancestors. (The Julians, Kate and her mother, are as committed to Owen’s future as any members of the family itself: Mrs Julian’s brother had once been engaged to Miss Wingrave in her youth. When both he and Mrs Julian’s husband had been killed in battle, the Wingraves cook her in at Paramore where she now acts as unofficial housekeeper. It has always been expected that Owen will marry Kate, with whom he has grown up, thus restoring the Julians’ wealth and position as well as ensuring the Wingrave line.) Owen arrives, prepared now to face the Wingraves, both the living and the dead. But he misses his usual welcome and it is soon made clear that he is in disgrace; he is upset co find chat even Kate has turned against him. He challenges his forebears ironically and the challenge is at once taken up: Sir Philip, Owen’s grandfather, appears and, in an abstract quartet which reflects the passing of a week, Owen suffers the family’s concerted attacks.
A week later, the family is still convinced chat Owen’s defection is a mere whim and that sufficient brow-beating will make him see the error of his ways. To this end the Coyles and Lechmere have been invited down to Paramore. Mrs Coyle, herself oppressed by the atmosphere of the house (which Coyle informs her is haunted by the father and son of a double portrait), observes that Owen is tired and depressed after the week’s ordeal. In private he admits to Coyle chat he seems to have roused all the old family ghosts. Coyle realises that he has taught his pupil all too well to understand and therefore question the import of his teachings.
A formal dinner. An uncomfortable evening meal, presided over by the old General, Sir Philip. The visitors work hard to lighten the atmosphere but succeed only in sparking off barely veiled recriminations. Each character privately voices his own feelings on the worsening situation. Finally, Sir Philip proclaims Owen a renegade and Owen, with the moral support of the Coyles, is stung into denouncing the politicians and war-lords as criminals for coercing men to make war against each other, The evening meal comes to an abrupt end as Sir Philip leaves the room. Owen is left alone.
A young Wingrave, in the time of Cromwell, has been unjustly accused of cowardice by his father. In his little room upstairs he is punished: a blow on the head kills the boy. When his father is sought to roll the funeral bell, he is found dead, lying as was his son on the floor of the little room. ‘Trumpet, blow! Paramore shall welcome woe.’
After dinner, Owen shows Coyle the haunted room, and tells him the story of the ghosts who are supposed to walk Paramore as a constant reminder to the Wingraves of the family courage. Owen has become obsessed with the legend and its application to his present circumstances.
Sir Philip summons Owen to his room. Coyle watches the two going into the study, the old man and the young one, and is struck by the parallel to the legend. While the stormy interview goes on behind the closed door of Sir Philip’s study, Coyle tries to persuade Miss Wingrave that Owen is a fighter in the true Wingrave tradition. Mrs Coyle, herself a soldier’s daughter, tries as unsuccessfully with Kate.
Owen comes from the study and announces that he is disinherited. Kate is furious that he seems to have shattered everything they have so carefully built up together. She is furious roo at her mother’s hysterical outburst: Mrs Julian sees the pride and hope of the Julian family dashed for ever. In a vain attempt to provoke Owen into standing up for himself, Kate pretends to flirt with Lechmere who, much to the Coyles’ displeasure, is by now besotted with Kate. Miss Wingrave appears from the study to announce that Owen is to be considered never to have been a member of their valiant family. She leads the stunned family upstairs, leaving Owen alone. He is elated by what he considers to be his victory and the liberation of his spirit: the fact that he has been rejected by the Wingraves relieves him of any further responsibility to their traditions and demands. In peace he has found himself: it is more committing than war itself; it is not weakness but strength; in peace he can be free, finished with the Wingraves.
But the two figures of the portrait seem to challenge him: he takes up the challenge. The boy was unable to stand up for himself: now Owen has done it for both of them, and for all time.
Kate, the true Kate, not the militant opponent, comes back to look for the Owen she has lost. He is touched by the return of his old sweetheart and for a moment it seems as if there might be a reconciliation. But Kate is goaded by what she considers to be his selfishness, his remarks about her flirtation with Lechmere, into calling him a coward. Watched by Lechmere from upstairs, she challenges Owen to prove himself by sleeping in the haunted room (a deed already forbidden Lechmere by Coyle) in order to confront the spirit of his vengeful ancestors. In his rage at her childishness, Owen accepts the challenge: but he knows he must face what is locked in that room – the power that makes men fight and kill each other – and he must face it alone. Kate locks him in, with some misgivings.
In their bedroom, the Coyles are both upset by the turn of events and uneasy on Owen’s behalf. Coyle, reading deep into the night, is disturbed by Lechmere coming to tell them what he has overheard on the staircase. Coyle is about to go and rescue Owen when a distant cry is heard from Kate.
The members of the household hurry through the passages and galleries of the old house towards Kate’s desperate cries. They find her outside the haunted room. She has taken pity on Owen in the middle of the night and come to let him out; he is dead, lying on the floor, like his ancestors in the legend. In his own way, Owen has fought and given his life for his ideals and has been claimed by his military forebears. Only by giving his life has he made his family understand: he lies there, dead, like a young soldier, victorious on the battlefield.
© Colin Graham
Festival programme book 1997