Opera North’s Peter Grimes Continues to Impress

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten: Peter Grimes (1945): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North / Jac van Steen (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, Salford, 5.11.2013 (RJF)

Peter Grimes: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor).
Ellen Orford: Giselle Allen (soprano).
Auntie: Yvonne Howard, (mezzo soprano).
Captain Balstrode: Robert Hayward, (baritone)
First Niece: Jennifer France, (soprano)
Second Niece: Aoife O’Sullivan (soprano)
Mrs Sedley: Rebecca de Pont Davies (mezzo-soprano)
Bob Boles: Mark Le Brocq (tenor) Bob Boles
Rev. Horace Adams: Iain Paton (tenor)
Hobson: Stephen Richardson, (bass)
Ned Keene: Benedict Nelson, (baritone)

Director: Phyllida Lloyd.
Set Designer: Anthony Ward.

Thirteen! Unlucky for some it seems, but certainly not for the birth of composers in the last two centuries. Whether 2013 follows on its two predecessors, 1913 and 1813, will perhaps be revealed in a few years’ time. Suffice it to say that this year we celebrate the birth of three operatic giants, Verdi, Wagner and Benjamin Britten. The first, on his death in 1901, was hailed as The Glory of Italy, with twenty thousand mourners singing the refrains of his music as his cortege was drawn through Milan. Wagner took opera in a different direction from its Italian roots and form, making the orchestra a dominant component of the stories, often based on legend and always to his own librettos. Meanwhile Britten stands alone at the pinnacle of British opera composition, whatever the claims of others from Purcell to more recent times; he is the colossus of the genre in this offshoot of Europe, a continent where opera had its birth.

Opera North has honoured Wagner via its widely praised series of concert performances of the Ring Operas. Verdi has had no such place in their thoughts in his bicentenary year, but next yeaer there is a belated reprise of a production of Macbeth. This is odd for a composer who has two works in the all time pantheon of operatic top ten performances, including, in La Traviata, the second most performed operatic work.

In honouring Britain’s greatest opera composer, Opera North came up with the catchy title Festival of Britten with its allusions to the 1951 Festival of Britain. The latter, based on the Great Exhibitions of the late nineteenth century in Paris, London and elsewhere, was where a country set out its stall of greatness, artistically, and more particularly, industrially. It was intended to mark the emergence of Britain from the deprivations and rigours of World War II, even though there was still rationing of certain items. The physical devastations were to take at least another fifty years before the major cracks were painted, or built, over, with many a false start in between!

What has not been a false start however, has been the artistic, not least in the lyric theatre with the creation of the Regional Opera Companies in the forefront. It is appropriate that one such, Opera North, should pay tribute to the country’s greatest operatic composer this year, a century after his birth, with three of his operas composed between the period from his seminal and ground breaking Peter Grimes in 1945 to Death in Venice in 1973 when Britten was ill and surviving only three years after its premiere.

When you have a widely acclaimed production, as this one by Phyllida Lloyd has become, then its revivability should inevitably follow at some time or other. Then the danger is that familiarity might breed non-attendance and bums on seats which is a constant pressure on our arts organisations as grants from the Arts Council are constantly cut back in the present economic conditions. Given that this production was first seen at the Lowry in November 2006 (see review) and reprised in February 2008 (see review) it was heartening to see good audience numbers at this performance.

It was not just Phyllida Lloyd’s production, with its sparse but effective sets and multitude of detail that contributed to the original triumph of the production, but also the orchestral dynamism and the singing cast. It is pleasing that Opera North have managed to bring together some of the principals from the previous productions to grace this contribution to this testimonial to the greatest British opera composer. First among equals I must mention Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts in the eponymous role. In the first few minutes of his contribution I feared the vocal demands of the role over the years had taken some toll on his tenor voice. It was only momentarily however, and he was soon into his stride vocally and in terms of his total acted portrayal. There was no diminution in Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s facial agony at finding, and then lifting and carrying away the dead body of Grimes’ second apprentice; as harrowing a picture as any I have experienced on the operatic stage and not made easier by a more physically mature, and well acted apprentice this time.

As before, Giselle Allen sings strongly as Ellen, but still with too little clarity of diction. This was also true of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and I was more aware than previously that the density of the orchestration and particularly the tessitura also contributed. Mine was a view shared by others around my front stalls seats, many making the point that a few helpful phrases on the title screen would have helped as to the detail of the unfolding tragic human story; after all how many would have the benefit of reading the libretto before the performance.

Notable vocal and acted contributions came from Yvonne Howard as Auntie and Robert Hayward as Balstrode whilst the two sisters, subject to what we now call sexual harassment groping outside the pub, acted and sang with good tone and clarity. The incident of the groper, tipsy vicar and hunting for Grimes are all part of the social scene. Britten was something of an outsider in society and his treatment of the spiv drug pusher along with those other characters, all well realised here, is a reflection of that. Add Phyllida Lloyd’s attention to the minutiae around the plot, and quickly moving stage picture, and the point is made to perfection with clarity.

Whilst not having the ability to draw out as much of the dynamism of the score as Richard Farnes, and despite the odd difference between pit and stage, Jac van Steen mastered the acoustic of The Lowry well, never drowning his soloists. His control and pacing of the orchestral interludes was a delight, whilst his interpretation elsewhere allowed the story to unfold in both its lyrical, dramatic and humorous facets. The large Opera North chorus sang with their usual sonority and vibrancy whilst fully committing themselves as actors and sceneshifters.

Robert J Farr



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