United Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, London Voices, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.9.2013. (JPr)
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 Adams: Brian Galliford
Hobson: Jonathan Veira
John, the apprentice: Charlie Gill
Director: Daniel Slater
Lighting: Tim Mascall
Peter Grimes became part of the history of Sadler’s Wells Opera, the predecessor to English National Opera, when it was premièred on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall. Despite its dark subject matter it was the first of Britten’s operas to gain for him both a critical and a popular success. Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, had been in America since 1939 and were in California when they read George Crabbe’s poem The Borough. As a native of Suffolk, like Crabbe, Britten strongly identified with the tragic story of Peter Grimes, an Aldeburgh fisherman. Britten and Pears returned as conscientious objectors to England in 1942. Not long after, Montagu Slater was asked to write the libretto and, with the input of Britten and Pears, Grimes, while retaining the dark side to his character, also becomes the victim of cruel fate and the society in which he lives. It was, as Britten later pointed out, ‘a subject very close to my heart – the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.’
Does Peter Grimes reveal Britten himself railing against some perceived guilt at being homosexual and his suffering from the social mores of the time and the gossips? Probably yes. I suspect Britten was certainly abused physically and/or sexually abused as a child. Britten himself claimed that something happened at his Lowestoft prep school, South Lodge, though some writers suggest Britten’s imagination was working overtime. That was mostly in pre-Savile days and now, very sadly, every day there is another news story revealing harrowing tales of child-molestation, either genuine or fabricated. This all adds a possible element of paedophilia to an already grim tale of the exploitation of – and violence towards – a child. Or is it more simply the tale of Britten as the outsider (Grimes) unaccepted in his own hometown (country?). It is as if the composer leaves his audience to decide whether his protagonist is a sociopath or sadist or paedophile – or any combination of the three.
This performance brought my summer of opera semi-stagings full circle because they began for me in the Royal Festival Hall with the Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert in May (review) and continued through the BBC Proms ,culminating in the London Symphony Orchestra’s recent outstanding Rigoletto at the opening of their 2013/14 Barbican season. To launch their own new season, the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose Peter Grimes as part of their Britten centenary celebrations. This was by far and away the finest semi-staging of an opera I have ever attended. Rigoletto, without any costumes or props, was great in its own way (review) but here – with perhaps both more money and time – total narrative clarity and abundant psychological detail was brought to this familiar story, which I sadly had to miss in its Aldeburgh beach adventures last June.
I complained a lot about the absence of props during the Wagner operas at the BBC Proms but it is clear that with just a few – as here – the dramatic atmosphere can be raised from risible to highly effective and often deeply emotional. I must, of course, acknowledge that director Justin Way at the Proms needed to get his singers near microphones while Daniel Slater did not have this issue at the Royal Festival Hall. I suspect most of the principals had their own costumes or suitable clothes and this gave everything a contemporary appearance. Alex Doidge-Green’s simple designs had some heavy rope across the front of the orchestra and a recreation of Grimes’ hut high up in the choir seats stage right. Little more was needed to set the scene and tell the story apart from a young ‘apprentice’ (Charlie Gill in a silent role) and a knitted jumper for Ellen Orford to find.
This was all fully complemented by Tim Mascall’s thoughtful and atmospheric lighting and so Daniel Slater’s staging (to call it a semi-staging is an insult) was excellent music-theatre in its own right. Generally the soloists, chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra were on top form and Vladimir Jurowski conducted perhaps the finest performance I have heard from him. The best moment was when Grimes lets the rope helping his apprentice down the cliff fall loose from his hands as he panics when ‘the Borough’ approaches his hut and hears the chorus’s repeated menacing calls of ‘Grimes … Peter Grimes’. Brandishing flaming torches they want to drum him – literally – out of town. The prospective horrors of mob-rule are only too obvious at this moment and there was a palpable frisson that as they set out to pursue Grimes this also had something to tell us about the actual times we are now living in. This was followed by the sight of Grimes carrying the dead boy’s body across from one side of the platform to the other – and even the most hard-hearted must have wiped a tear from their eye at this point.
All the minor roles were well characterised with standout performances from Jean Rigby, as the uptight, laudanum-addled, gossipy Mrs Sedley who relished every second of her ‘Murder most foul it is’ and ‘Crime, which my hobby is’ moments, Pamela Helen Stephen was more EastEnders pub landlady, and somewhat less blowsy, as the procuress Auntie with her two, damaged yet ‘sociable’, Nieces (Malin Christensson and Elizabeth Cragg) tottering on stilettos and straight out of The Only Way is Essex. Michael Colvin’s intemperate Bob Boles, the Methodist, Mark Stone’s swaggering Ned Keene, Jonathan Veira’s stalwart Hobson, Brian Galliford’s pious Reverend Horace Adams and Brindley Sherratt’s lecherous lawyer Swallow also brought a wealth of experience to the ensemble. Everyone sang strongly and with excellent diction that made the surtitles mostly redundant.
I have seen Alan Opie across almost all the years I have gone to opera as he is the same generation as John Tomlinson. Like him Opie’s voice is in a remarkable state of preservation as he approaches his 70thyear. It was a consummate vocal performance and he was typically patriarchal and sympathetic as the grizzled retired merchant skipper, Captain Balstrode, the only other friend Grimes has. When I used to audition singers I used to believe that the last thing the opera world needed was more sopranos, however, Pamela Armstrong’s Ellen Orford was the third soprano in a leading role to disappoint me this week – I am beginning to doubt my ears but believe they are okay. In a subtle portrayal she showed her character’s sense of purpose and how she offered Grimes a chance at legitimacy; if he can marry her, the people of the Borough might see him through her eyes. By reining in the vulnerability she might show, it made her anguish near the end even more palpable. Her plan unravels during a climactic scene when Ellen, who has seen a bruise on the boy’s neck, quizzes Grimes about it. Cornered like a wounded animal, he strikes her. Ms Armstrong affectingly showed how more than the physical hurt, she felt foolish for not realising Grimes was a lost cause and how she was misguided to ever think she could save him. Unfortunately she acted better than she sang and her voice had pitch problems throughout the evening.
Australian Stuart Skelton seemed to have Jon Vickers’s portrayal in mind as Grimes. (I heard Vickers in this role and those not familiar with him should know he was a strange man who apparently would not sing Tannhäuser and the young Siegfried because of the dubious morality of their characters but embraced Grimes! The wonderful British heroic tenor, Alberto Remedios, had the misfortune to be around at the same time as Vickers and his excellent Grimes was an unknown quantity in this country apart from a couple of concert performances and the ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ scene during an English National Opera Gala. If anyone reading this has a recording of Remedios as Grimes please contact the author of this review.) Skelton’s Grimes was not an alienated dreamer like Peter Pears (who I spoke to about this role) even though at times he was lost in reverie; but like Vickers he was mostly in mental turmoil or prone to outbursts of brutality. At the ENO in 2009 (where he is currently singing Florestan) Stuart Skelton did not seem a real heldentenor but now he has a gruffer, fuller and darker sound – a bit like Vickers – and any lyricism is more hard-won but is still essentially there, just about. At times his Grimes seems to genuinely believe he could settle down with Ellen and not beat her up and these gentler moments made his powerful outbursts even more threatening. Every word was clearly heard and this added to the impact of his portrayal. He is also awkwardly built – and with his natural cumbersomeness and baby-faced appearance – it was easy to imagine someone who was bullied when young and is now a bully himself, rather like Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
In closing I must first pay tribute to the London Voices and their chorus master, Ben Parry, for their important contribution to the evening’s success. Their savage cries for vengeance will live long in my memory and they acted with great commitment throughout, even though – unlike the soloists – they needed their scores which more often than not were used as props such as when they became bibles for the Prologue’s coroner’s inquest. But more than anything I must repeat that I have rarely heard anything better from Vladimir Jurowski and his excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra than this polished, colourful, brooding and tempestuous account of Britten’s score.
Click here to read a review of a Birmingham performance by the same artists on 26 September
For more about the LPO’s forthcoming concerts visit www.lpo.org.uk.