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B e g g a r ' s   O p e r a

Vyvyan frequently appeared on TV from the first years of her career: in complete operas like Puccini's Il Tabarro (1950) and Brian Easdale's The Spur of the Moment (1959), in serious concerts, and as the singing guest on light entertainment programmes. But of the few instances where she appears on a commercially released film, the first isn't so much an appearance as a hearing.

A 1953 film of The Beggar's Opera in a version not by Britten but Sir Arthur Bliss (who in that year became Master of the Queen's Music), it was directed by Peter Brook, used specially commissioned dialogue by Christopher Fry, and was a project that combined prestige with box-office appeal. Laurence Olivier starred as Macheath (his only film musical) with Dorothy Tutin and Stanley Holloway among a cast that included the screen debut of the comedian Kenneth Williams.

Some of the actors sang their own music, others mimed. And Vyvyan's part was as the singing voice of Daphne Anderson who played the role of Lucy Lockit (for a clip of her in drunken mode but still securely on the note, see clip below).



Alongside Vyvyan, the distinguished unseen cast of voices included Joan Cross, Adele Leigh and Edith Coates: all leading ladies of the 1950s English opera world. A DVD of the film is available on StudioCanal OPTD1191.

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T u r n   o f   t h e   S c r e w

After the international success of Britten's Turn of the Screw it was decided to film an adapted version of the original production for TV (click on THE BRITTEN CONNECTION for more details). It broadcast over two nights, Christmas 1959 and was the first time a Britten opera had appeared on the small screen. It was also the first time any opera had appeared in full on Independent Television.

Nervous of the result, Britten handed the conducting to Charles Mackerras, and Pears passed his role on as well. But the Governess was Vyvyan as before. And though the recorded quality of the black & white transmission isn't ideal, it captures the dramatic power of her performance with striking vividness.

En route to the house where she's about to face unnatural horrors, she confronts her fears:



As tensions mount, so does her tendency to the neurotic:



And her despair in the final scene is magnificent:



Press responses were enthusiastic, not least for Vyvyan’s ability to act under the close scrutiny of the camera. But the film has never been available commercially.

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O w e n   W i n g r a v e

Although commissioned for a TV premiere, Owen Wingrave was written with the intention that it should have a continuing life on stage; and its reluctance to seize in full the opportunities that television offered is perhaps one reason for its secondary status within Britten’s operatic canon. It proceeds with caution, treading similar ground to Turn of the Screw as a ghost story taken from Henry James with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. And its conscience-driven central character - a young man from an ancient military family who declares himself a pacifist – is, for the opera stage, a quiet hero. William Walton, Britten’s older rival in the world of English music, dubbed him Godfrey Wingrave: a joke that referenced an ineffectually agonising TV pundit of the period, Godfrey Winn.

Nonetheless, the first appearance of the piece on UK television on 16 May 1971 was a significant event; and it featured a distinguished cast of singers who reflected Britten’s inner-circle of interpreters at that time: Heather Harper, John Shirley-Quirk, Sylvia Fisher, Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon, Jennifer Vyvyan and of course Peter Pears.

Vyvyan’s role as Mrs Julian, an impoverished dependent of the Wingrave family, is a supporting one on the edge of the narrative and relatively modest after her successes in previous Britten operas. According to some commentators her professional relationship with the composer cooled during the 1960s (see THE BRITTEN CONNECTION), and there does seem to have been a hardening of vocal tone that may explain why he was no longer casting her in starring roles. But he must still have valued her artistry or he wouldn’t have cast her at all. And there’s an undeniable follow-though from the neurotic Governess in Screw to the hysterical nature of Mrs Julian.



Clearly she was character-matched to the part. As Britten said in a TV documentary about the making of Wingrave, ‘every singer in that cast was the ideal one…I don’t know what I did to deserve it really’. So the allocation of a fairly small role probably had no great significance. And supporting though it may be, Britten gives it the compensation of prominent solo opportunities in what are otherwise ensemble scenes.



The opera was filmed, at Britten’s insistence, on a specially constructed set in Snape Maltings over five weeks in Nov-Dec 1970 (for more details click on THE BRITTEN CONNECTION). The resulting TV film is now available on a Decca DVD, 074 3330, that includes rehearsal footage and interviews with the composer.

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