Peter Grimes I Here Advise You

ItalyItaly  Britten, Peter Grimes  in concert form.  Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica Rome.  26.10.2013 (JB)


Peter Grimes,  Gregory Kunde
Ellen Orford,  Sally Matthews
Captain Balstrode,  Alan Opie
Auntie,  Susan Bickley
Auntie’s Nieces,  Elena Santhoudakis and Simona Mihai
Robert Boles, Michael Colvin
Justice Swallow,  Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley,  Felicity Palmer

When Peter Grimes first saw the light of day on 7 June 1945 –just one month after the War at the London Sadlers Wells Theatre (reopened for the occasion), non of its makers could have guessed they were  bringing about a pivotal change, not just in the world of opera, but in Western culture.  A short detour will be necessary to explain this.

A favourite book of mine is English Synonymes Explained  by George Crabbe (London 1818).  My London book suppliers found me a first edition.  For anyone who is involved with the wonder, magic, pleasure  and usefulness of words, this  Dictionary is a minefield.  The Reverend George Crabbe (1754 – 1832) was a clergyman, surgeon, story-writer and poet.  He is perhaps best remembered in our own times for his poetry, which while admittedly uneven, contains some of the finest lines of any of his contemporaries, which include Byron and Wordsworth, both of whom were admirers (as well as being uneven themselves).  Byron admired Crabbe for his humanity and Wordsworth praised  Crabbe’s depth of psychological insight.

In 1810, Crabbe, the genius wordsmith, produced a long poem called The Borough, which later students of English Letters recognised as the first specimen of what would later be called the Gothic Horror story, in which Peter Grimes is clearly cast as the Frankenstein.  Crabbe couldn’t use this actual  name since Mary Shelley had not yet invented it!  But when the Gothic Horror genre evolved, flourished and blossomed in the later nineteenth century, it was  The Borough  they often saw as  their geneses.

Even today, to read Crabbe’s poem sends shudders down the spine.  Peter Grimes is the blackest of villains. However, Montagu Slater (librettist) and Benjamin Britten present a much more ambivalent character, and unwittingly introduced what would much later be called the anti-hero.  One empathises with the Slater, Britten Grimes, for all his horror (much of which they also retain).   Novelists and movie makers soon took up the personage of the anti-hero until it became –and continues to be- a commonplace without losing any of its original arresting attraction.

Moreover, here, Britten had stumbled on a theme which would be central to his remaining twenty-five operas, without exception: innocent suffering.

The prologue is brisk and brief.  Grimes is on trial for possible involvement in the death of his boy apprentice.  Britten’s bustling orchestration tells us the town authorities have no time “to waste” on this and the Magistrate swiftly declares, Peter Grimes I here advise you- do not get another boy apprentice.  Get a fisherman to help you –big enough to stand up for himself.  Our verdict is –that William Spode, your apprentice, died in accidental circumstances.  But that’s the kind of thing people are apt to remember. 

The entire plot is here: died in accidental circumstances and the kind of thing people are apt to remember.  (We have already had the briefest introduction to some of the mischief makers. Slater lifts this directly out of Crabbe. ) And in Rome, Matthew Best as Justice Swallow had the perfect declamatory pomposity to deliver this no-time-to-waste verdict .

The epilogue, though slower and attempting to carry the weight of the drama is also chillingly brief.  The townsfolk are satisfied that Grimes has put out to sea and can no longer be sited.  The shock comes when we are then made to understand that it’s business as usual .  A final Crabbe poetic touch precedes the slow curtain as the townsfolk quietly sing, In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide, / Flowing fills the channel broad and wide. / Then back to sea with strong, majestic sweep / It rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep.

It would be several decades before Hollywood engaged with this reflective, nothing-happening ending., where the nothing is not exactly nothing. (Certain British theatre dramatists picked up the hint at once.)

The title role was created by Peter Pears, Britten’s lover.  Sir Peter had a particular vocal emission which naturally expressed pain –very useful in Winterreise- and Britten calls for lots of this.  William Walton used to say that Peter had ruined a whole generation of English tenors who tried to imitate him.  And they still do.  Then Jon Vickers came along and Grimes suddenly became virile.  Vickers was famed for his Otello and he brought a new fighting spirit to Peter Grimes.  This was rightly applauded.  Here was a fisherman made of sterner stuff.

In Rome now, Gregory Kunde took an incredibly risky middle way.  It’s a pleasure to report that it worked.  His voice is virile as well as pained.  He was rightly awarded the ovation of the evening.

Joan Cross created the role of the widowed, village schoolmistress, Ellen Orford.  Hers was a powerful voice with fine expression. Later, Heather Harper –a firm Britten favourite- made a significant mark in the role, especially in the beauty of the expressive passages, where we hear how vulnerable Ellen is.

Rome had Sally Matthews.  Ms Matthews is not so much a singer as a scooper.  She scoops up the notes with the effect of an automated, unstoppable vacuum cleaner.  Her sustained aria in the third act –My broidered anchor on the chest– (the only real aria in the opera) was an unmitigated disaster.

Susan Bickley pulled out all the right stops for the rumbustious charm and wit of Auntie, keeper of the pub. Elena Xanthoudakis and Simona Mihail were equally perky as her two nieces, the pub’s main attraction.

Felicity Palmer was all we have come to expect as the evil-minded Widow Sedley(a role she has sung many times).  There were moments when I couldn’t hear her.  But when you can’t hear Dame Felicity you know that there is something wrong which cannot be her.  The part is not well written.  She is required to sing sotto voce  in much of her plotting while there is the most almighty row going on in the orchestra.

The orchestra is, of course, the opera’s principal character –the sea.  (Crabbe set his poem in Aldeburgh, where Britten moved soon after the premiere, remaining there for the rest of his life.) Wind, percussion and strings go from strength to strength in the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.  I was only disturbed by Antonio Pappano’s too clean an edge which he chose to give to some of the sea’s phrases.  Colin Davis used to make the sea interludes sound like an improvisation.  Sir Antonio’s waves are a little too organised to be convincing.  Beautifully nuanced, yes, and hauntingly atmospheric (more so than Davis’s) but the sometime clean edge disturbed my pleasure.

Ciro Visco performed his usual magic in the preparation of the chorus with every nuance naturally in place.  And Britten requires a lot of them.

Jack Buckley



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