I do not have sufficient knowledge of the subject to comment on the quality of singing or performing on any opera recording, so will leave that to others. Like all of Britten's operas, this is a remarkably challenging and original work, and deserves far more attention than it gets. Typically for Britten, you get a lot of thought-provoking content, with a completely original story line and intelligent libretto. Unlike most operas, Britten's work has real depth. While it is true that this work is about pacifism, it is not simply an anti-war polemic, and deals with the rigidity and opressiveness within the families of the English ruling class, and the demands that are handed down through the generations. The portrayal of the female characters in this work is particularly striking, as they are far more pro-military than the men who acturally have to go off to fight.
Owen Wingrave seems to be the poor relation among Britten's operas. It still has had only this one recording (+ a made-for-TV DVD from 2001) in the thirty years since it was first performed.
The opera was originally written for TV (and there is a fascinating interview with the composer about the writing of operas for television, made while Britten was working on Wingrave and available on his BBC Legends recording of the Mozart Requiem). But the composer was wily/practical enough to ensure that it worked equally well in the theatre and it has had several successful subsequent performances in opera houses around the world. Maybe this recording with the original cast is so definitive that others are put off.
It's a pity because Wingrave is one of Britten's most tightly organised theatre-pieces and deals with a subject (pacifism) that was very close to its composer's heart. There is the familiar motivic unity, common to most Britten operas. Central to this is the haunting theme sung in the ballad at the opening of Act 2. This permeates the whole score from the music for the house, Paramore, which is almost a character in its own right ('Surely he will listen to the house') to the ticking of the clock in the Coyles' bedroom after Owen has been locked in the small room. The opening of the opera is very arresting: the paintings of members of the military Wingrave family through the centuries each receive a musical portrait, each one increasing in Berg-like chromatic, expressionist intensity until we finally resolve harmonically on the living figure of Owen. Owen's big 'Peace' aria in Act 2 is magical - surrounded by a halo of tuned percussion, of all Britten's gamelan inspired pieces this is the one that seems most fully assimilated into his own language.
These discs are performed by the singers for whom the parts were originally written - with one exception. The part of Lechmere was written for Robert Tear, but he decided to accept the part of Dov in Tippett's Knot Garden instead and suffered the Aldeburgh excommunication as a result. Otherwise, all the roles fit their performers like the proverbial gloves. Maybe Kate is a bit of a 'Miss' in character terms for Janet Baker, but she sings it magnificently. Ben Luxon makes a warmly human and sympathetic Owen. Jennifer Vyvyan. John Shirley-Quirk, Heather Harper and, of course, Peter Pears are all vivid in characterisation, focused on the text and wonderfully sung. Sylvia Fisher produces another of her fearsome termagants to set beside Lady Billows and Gloriana. And Britten conducts his own score as sensitively and authoritatively as always. The fill-ups make strange bed-fellows for the opera - a German and a Russian song-cycle - but they are both worth exploring and are well performed. The DVD with an excellent Owen in Gerald Finley is worth a try, but this set is very much the definitive (and currently the only) recording.
This was Benjamin Britten's only opera for television and was one of his later works. It is based on Henry James's short story about a man who comes from a soldiering family but who rebels against it and becomes a pacifist. It is about his struggle against his arrogant and hateful relatives. I find it one of Britten's most personal operas (he himself was a pacifist). This recording is, without doubt, the greatest one yet. Benjamin Luxton sings Owen with more conviction than any other before him and I was almost moved to tears hearing Owen's wonderful aria at the beginning of Act II. All the other singers are wonderful and this CD is a must for any lover of Britten's music. My favourite Britten opera.