Grim Grimes in Stockholm touches heart-string

SwedenSweden  Britten Peter Grimes:  Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera, Lawrence Renes (conductor). Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm. 8.5.2013. New Production (GF)

Peter Grimes:  John Danzak
Ellen Orford:  Ingela Brimberg
Balstrode:  Gabriel Suovanen
Auntie:  Marianne Eklöf
Niece 1:  Marianne Hellgren Staykov
Niece 2:  Vivianne Holmberg
Bob Boles:  Niklas Björling Rygert
Swallow:  John Erik Eleby
Mrs Sedley:  Agneta Lundgren
Pastor Horace Adams:  Jonas Degerfeldt
Ned Keen:   Ola Eliasson
Hobson:  Lennart Forsén
John:  Niklas Hjelmvik
Dr Crabbe:  Jan Strömberg
Children:  Anton Adelöw, Erik Adelöw

Directed by Johanna Garpe
Sets by Per A. Jonsson
Costumes by Nina Sandström
Lighting design by Thorsten Dahn
Choreography by Gunnlaugur Egilsson
Video projections by Sutoda

Photo © Markus Gårder/ Swedish Royal Opera
Photo © Markus Gårder/ Swedish Royal Opera

The Stockholm Royal Opera management back in the 1940s had a keen scent for valuable news and mounted Peter Grimes less than a year after the London premiere, with the great Wagnerian tenor Set Svanholm in the title role and another Wagner singer of international stature, Sigurd Björling, taking the role of Balstrode. Then there was a vacuity of almost 35 years before Grimes was back – in 1980 with Elisabeth Söderström as Ellen Orford, Sven-Olof Eliasson (another Wagner singer) as Grimes and Erik Saedén as Balstrode. Now, almost 35 years later again, it’s time for a third outing. I saw the second performance of the new production, which also was the 23rd since the premiere in 1946. So the Stockholm audiences have not exactly been spoilt with Grimeses. I have rather faint memories of the 1980 production but remember that the singing and acting was on a high level – it couldn’t be otherwise with such names; both Söderström and Saedén were versatile and very much at home in modern opera.

Judging from the number of empty seats in the stalls – I even believe that some visitors left during the interval – there will probably be no revival after the nine performances that are scheduled until the beginning of May. And that is a great pity. Johanna Garpe has created a tight and intense production, discreetly transported in time to somewhere at the time of the opera’s premiere, when life in many small Swedish communities was permeated with suspiciousness against anyone or anything that stood out from the norm. Peter Grimes is an odd person, he may be violent, he may have criminal tendencies, but he is odd and thus he is doomed by the merciless crowd. Ellen Orford is also doomed because she doesn’t fit into the social pattern. In this production Garpe has chosen to cast John, the boy who Grimes hires to help him with the daily chores, with a young Down’s syndrome actor – another character that diverges from the norm. This mute role was played with such humanity and warmth by Niklas Hjelmvik that I believe most people in the audience went home with a lump in the throat. This was reality within fiction that made the whole production rise to sublime heights. Alienation has always been a reality in all kinds of societies, irrespective of time and environment and today’s struggle to achieve equality is still only some scratching on the surface. Deep inside we nurture our prejudices. Johanna Garpe has put her finger on behaviours that we can feel, smell, hear, see all around us. If this production can make at least a few of us think and react it will hopefully make this world a little better for a few of us.

The sets are in no way spectacular, they are not made to draw attention to inessentials, they just make us in the audience focus on the play, the action, the psychology.

As in the Greek drama the chorus is of the utmost importance, the collective versus the individual. But the collective also consists of individuals and this is well delineated – within the collective there are strongly chiselled out portraits. Everybody involved seems to have gone into this project wholeheartedly and also managed to convey this across the pit – no easy task, and with music that a lot of people still, almost 70 years after the premiere, feel ‘difficult’. But the convincing acting, aided by the excellent translation on the surtitles, makes a lot to get the onlookers into the drama and the beautiful and today well known sea interludes, extremely well played by the Royal Orchestra under its new chief conductor Lawrence Renes, did a lot to knit the drama together, further enhanced through evocative projections where water was the central theme.

The cast couldn’t have been bettered and with a number of the Royal Opera’s foremost singing actors the dramatic and musical result was outstanding. The British tenor John Daszak was a threatening and towering personality but he also showed that behind the tough façade there were softer feelings. Peter Grimes is no black-and-white character. There are many nuances of grey as well. Vocally he occasionally reminded me of Peter Pears, the original Grimes and Britten’s life-partner. When Covent Garden in the 1970s mounted Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers in the title role, Britten disliked his reading of the role. I have always admired Vickers in the role on records but Britten probably wanted him to be a weaker character than Vickers was willing to create. In that case Britten would have liked Daszak better.

Ingela Brimberg in her first role at the Royal Opera was a sensationally good Ellen Orford, vocally glowing and heroic, scenically vulnerable and affecting. In many ways Ellen Orford in this production stood out as equal in importance to Grimes. Ingela Brimberg might well be elected the singer of the year in Sweden for her Ellen Orford.

The rest of the cast was also superb with Gabriel Suovanen’s stiff-legged Balstrode, John Erik Eleby’s hard-boiled Swallow and Lennart Forsén’s monumental Hobson especially impressive.

Turandot a couple of months ago was a resounding success, every performance sold out – and deservedly so – but this new Peter Grimes should also attract large audiences. And it has a message – an important message!


Göran Forsling