Dramatic Concert Performance Brings Peter Grimes to Life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Concert performance from Soloists, London Voices and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski (Conductor) Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.9.2013. (GR)

Peter Grimes                     Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford                      Pamela Armstrong
Captain Balstrode           Alan Opie
Auntie                                  Pamela Helen Stephen
Nieces                                 Malin Christensson & Elizabeth Cragg
Bob Boles                           Michael Colvin
Swallow                               Brindley Sherratt
Mrs Sedley                         Jean Rigby
Ned Keene                          Mark Stone
Rev Horace Adam          Brian Galliford
Hobson                                Jonathan Veira
John, the apprentice      Charlie Gill


Director                              Daniel Slater
Designer                             Alex Doidge-Green
Lighting                              Tim Mascall

Billed as the opening concert of the 2013/14 Birmingham International Concert Season, the series got off to a magnificent start on September 26th in Symphony Hall with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth. It might argued that the production team contravened the Trade Descriptions Act for this was no ordinary ‘concert’: director Daniel Slater and his team created a operatic spectacle with astute use of props and movement. What they did with the metre width in front of the orchestra plus the choir platforms behind (when vacated) was worthy of any ‘big’ house production. The inclusion of Stuart Skelton in the lead role (thought by many to be the best Grimes since Jon Vickers) and Vladimir Jurowski on the platform ensured that Britten’s great opera received a memorable performance.

Britten’s proficiency for vocal composition is epitomised in Peter Grimes and the assembled singers with their mixture of talent and experience rose to the occasion. Nominated for an Olivier award for his 2009 ENO Grimes portrayal, the Australian-born Heldentenor Skelton reprised his interpretation of the troubled East Anglian fisherman with superb delivery and consummate acting. In his shabby nautical sweater and dungarees he was the character depicted by the libretto of Montague Slater (based upon George Crabbe’s poem) and Britten’s atmospheric score; his attention to both detail and delivery of the major arias was beyond reproach. As Grimes related the events of fateful day to Balstrode in I.i, Skelton showed how the loss of his apprentice had affected him; introverted and preferring his own company to the boozy drinkers inside The Boar, his fatal attraction to the sea culminated in a reflective What harbour shelters peace? dreaming of what might be with Ellen the love of his life. And although we saw the roughness of his character in his treatment of both Ellen and his second apprentice John, a sensitive poetic side came across in the Great Bear and Pleiades aria. Such variation in character was achieved by vocal technique – a beautifully delicate top allied to a generous middle and firm bottom – and genuine stage magnetism. The confusions in Grimes’ mind were also seen with his mood changes as he prepared to put to sea in II.ii: in turn Skelton was threatening towards John to get his oilskins on, then briefly compassionate concerning the boy’s tearfulness. Hopeful that a big catch will make his fortune there was desperation in his repeated I’ll marry Ellen, since he knew it was not to be. But clinging to his dream of some kindlier home he began to hear those voices and delusions of the death of his previous apprentice broke through Accomplished with a remarkable control of dynamics, Skelton depicted both tender and manic humours, and when invited by Balstrode to scupper his boat the vacant expression that accompanied his nods of acquiescence were extremely touching.

Along with Grimes, Britten’s opera also places the Borough at the centre of his drama giving them a pivotal rol. London Voices under their Chorus Master Ben Parry provided the choral passages.  From their first extended chorus O hang at open doors which established a maritime setting with its nets and tides, there was real power to the salty strains of this gang of Suffolkers. True to their nineteenth century community they bustled along, always on the move, often only getting to their singing stations by the skin of their teeth. It was they who brought the first sense of tragedy to the drama with a surging tsunami of commotion in Now the flood tide…. praying that their coast might be spared. In complete contrast their offstage supplication to keep us free from harm today was prayerful and sincere. And as the Borough called for Grimes’ blood the choir marched to front of stage for an accusatory Who holds himself apart and deafening shouts of Peter Grimes!

How a production of Peter Grimes portrays the relationship between Grimes and Ellen Orford is a difficult one; and the restrictions of a concert hall can increase this problem. Perhaps wisely, Slater played down any physical attraction between male and female leads. As the widowed schoolmistress, Pamela Armstrong retained dignity throughout, even after her resigned We’ve failed and being realistically floored by Skelton’s strike. Although I was not entirely convinced by Armstrong, the American soprano had her moments. Her Whatever you say solo may not have cut the mustard with the villagers but its biblical message was solid and persuasive, while her Embroidery in childhood holding the missing ’prentice’s jumper was poignant. We knew, she knew, that what had begun was over; however her doubts about Peter begun earlier with Were we right? lacked impact.

The individual voices of the community were also well represented by the strong cast. Brindley Sherratt was a commanding Swallow and gave authority to his pronouncement of the accidental circumstances verdict. I thought Michael Colvin was without doubt the best Bob Boles I have heard and seen; this ‘Methody’ struck a fine balance between a figure of fun and the conscience of the Borough, taking the moral high ground when regarding Grimes as a lost soul of a fisherman. Pamela Helen Stephen was a busy Auntie although hardly a hostess with the mostest.  Malin Christensson and Elizabeth Cragg were sufficiently flighty as the two Nieces; their Provided that the tête-à-tête’s in threes exchange with Swallow delightfully confirmed they were a bit of a tease. Jean Rigby looked and sounded great as the redoubtable Mrs Sedley; her All right’s in response to the disgrace of a pub rendezvous with her pusher/apothecary Ned Keene in order to get her supply of ‘sleeping draught’ were suitably amusing. As the well-loved rentier Captain Balstrode, Alan Opie showed compassion and shrewdness towards Grimes, but I thought this old sea dog lacked some of his bark. Mark Stone was a suave and breezy Ned Keene, the Mr Fixit of the Borough. Jonathan Veira as the carrier Hobson jollied proceedings along with the catchy I have to go from pub to pub (someone has to do it) and demonstrated his drumming skills by leading the village posse to Grimes’ hut. If individually the cast was good, several of the ensembles were outstanding – the beautiful quartet of Ellen, Auntie and nieces in II.i with its repeated Do we smile or do we weep… being an excellent example.

Knitting it all together were the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski their Principal Conductor, another immense contribution. Jurowski’s opera experience (Komische/Glyndebourne) showed with his sympathetic accompaniment of the soloists, while his handling of the six interludes generated a rich symphonic poem characteristic. In Dawn, the flutes of Florian Aichinger and Stewart Mcilwham combined exquisitely with the strings led by Peter Schoeman to produce the familiar composite timbre that opens the first of the Four Sea Interludes. Jurowski painted a graphic picture from Britten’s tonal and atonal mix. The LPO gave a cacophonous reproduction of the Storm themes in Interlude II, noted for Britten’s use of the Phrygian mode to symbolise the inner angst of Grimes. Watching Jurowski handle the constantly changing rhythms of Sunday Morning revealed a conductor on peak form. The Passacaglia provided further musical evidence of the multi-faceted personality of Grimes, its complex ground bass affording a background for the dark viola solo of Hung-Wei Hang. The upper woodwind spikes penetrated the stuttering chorale of Moonlight while the Fog cadenza had sanity-destroying eeriness.

Many concert performances of opera are just that: great sounds (particularly within such wonderful venues this Birmingham one) but without a feel for the action. Although there were no sets as such, director Daniel Slater introduced sufficient nautical elements to ensure his production of Peter Grimes really came alive. The ongoing movement of both the Borough community and featured residents (free of any unwieldy scores) had clearly been thoroughly rehearsed, resulting in a smooth and natural sequence of events that moved the narrative forward. There was judicious use of props – particularly the boy’s jumper and a heavy gauge white rope. The use of the capstan rope made any visible picture of Grimes’ fishing vessel unnecessary: in I.i Balstrode took the posture of anchor-man in a tug-of-war to haul in the boat and at III.ii when persuaded to scuttle the craft, the rope slithered off stage, gathering speed as the boat was claimed by Davy Jones. The sight of Grimes crossing the stage carrying the body of the boy in his arms was another dramatic highlight.

This was an exhilarating opening to the 2013/14 Birmingham International Concert Season. This was indeed concert opera with a difference, and in a different class. What a shame the Symphony Hall was not filled to capacity.

Geoff Read