For the two or three Benjamin Britten fans out there, Chicago Opera Theater's Owen Wingrave is an absolute must see; for the rest of us (surprise!) it's right up there too, thanks to a superb production, directed by Ken Cazan.
A combination antiwar statement and ghost tale, based on a Henry James story, the opera was commissioned for BBC TV, where it premiered in 1971; then it was pretty much forgotten. The setting is British and late Victorian, but the message--aggh--is as timely now as it was during the Vietnam war. The title character, convincingly played and sung by baritone Matthew Worth, is heir to a military tradition he detests; the war he has to fight is the battle for peace, waged entirely at home.
Cazan finds every ounce of drama in Myfanwy Piper's didactic libretto, and his team of collaborators are with him all the way, especially set designer Peter Harrison, who summons an entire estate with a single staircase or dinner table. One might quibble with the casting of Wingrave's fiancee, a role that calls for drop-dead charisma, but overall this is extremely well acted and sung, with notable performances by Robin Leggate as Wingrave's grandfather and the offstage narrator, as well as by Matt Boehler and Rebecca Caine as the empathetic Mr. and Mrs. Coyle.
The 14-member orchestra is conducted by Steuart Bedford, who worked with Britten on the original production. It's a great climax to an outstanding season at Chicago's most interesting opera company. Performances are at 7:30 PM on May 20, 22, and 26 and 3 PM on May 24, all at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets are $30 to $120 at ChicagoOperaTheater.org or 312-704-8414. Check for half-price, midrange tickets at the box office two hours prior to performance.