Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach…… Probably Better in a Theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach: Soloists, Chorus of Opera North, Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Britten–Pears Orchestra / Stuart Bedford (conductor). Cinema screening of new DVD at The Hospital Club, Covent Garden, London, 4.12.2013. (JPr)


Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach
Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach

Alan Oke (Peter Grimes)
Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford)
David Kempster (Captain Balstrode)
Gaynor Keeble (Auntie)
Alexandra Hutton & Charmian Bedford (Nieces)
Charles Rice (Ned Keene)
Robert Murray (Bob Boles)
Henry Waddington (Swallow)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedley)
Christopher Gillett (Rev Horace Adams)
Stephen Richardson (Hobson)

Directed for the screen by Margaret Williams
Live production directed by Tim Albery
Set and costume design Leslie Travers
Lighting design Lucy Carter
Film produced by Anne Beresford & Debbie Gray

As a celebration of the centenary of Benjamin Britten this is a worthy enough document of the performances of Peter Grimes that took place during this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. Based on George Crabbe’s 1810 poem ‘The Borough’, Britten’s evocation of the North Sea in all its moods has become inextricably linked with Aldeburgh that was home to Crabbe in the late eighteenth century and Britten in the twentieth. Peter Grimes on the beach was directed by Tim Albery and he placed the audience on that beach watching the story of Peter Grimes unfold as dusk fades over the sea: they were in the county of the composer’s birth, at the heart of the town that inspired Crabbe’s verse tale (and subsequently Montague Slater’s libretto) and the site of all the actual action. This film was made during three of the live performances that garnered good reviews from those who wrote about it. I subsequently also missed catching up with it when it was successfully screened in more than 90 cinemas across the UK but have now seen this DVD on a large cinema screen and I suspect you just had to be there in Aldeburgh to get taken in by the atmosphere and occasion.

The weather in June does not seem to have been very good for most alfresco operas but appears nearly perfect for Peter Grimes with the hint of rain, stiff wind and gloomy low grey cloud. However as we see it on film the concept is rather flawed and for me Peter Grimes was better served by a semi-staging at the Royal Festival Hall last September (link to review here please ). Of course as a record of those unique performances it is perfectly fine for anyone who wants it but I doubt whether it does anything to enhance our understanding of what Peter Grimes is all about. Also why is Act II – that takes place on a Sunday morning – here seen in the dark?

To repeat myself a little, as I have written before Britten pointed out that the opera was based on ‘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.’ Is it Britten railing against some perceived guilt at being homosexual and his suffering from the social mores of the time and the gossips? Probably yes. It is widely believed the composer was abused physically and/or sexually abused as a child and this 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 unaccepted in his own country because of his retreat to America during some of the war years. (With Peter Pears he returned in 1942 and Peter Grimes premièred in 1945 so cue Spitfire flypast that is the opening shot of this film.) Britten seems to be leaving his audience to decide whether his protagonist is a sociopath or sadist or paedophile – or any combination of the three? Unfortunately these were Alan Oke’s first Grimeses and his reticent performance left a gaping hole at the centre of the proceedings because I could not achieved any real understanding what his motivation was.

Leslie Travers’ sets and costumes are visually effective and represent a seaside community down on its luck because of the war. Occasionally, especially with the ‘apothecary and quack’, Ned Keene, shown as a black-market spiv – if it wasn’t for the subject matter – it could have been Dad’s Army the musical! I liked the hints of the ocean, real moonlighting, images of Grimes on the shingle beach, the waves rolling in during the Sea Interludes etc etc. However the single weather-beaten set with up, down or turned around fishing boats, ropes and ladders, and wonky lampposts worked well on the crowd scenes but was not so good for the more intimate moments – despite the use of close-ups that were not available to the live audience. Why was the fall of Grimes’s apprentice, John, less realistic here than almost anything I have seen the theatre, including the RFH recently? And why did we not see more of Grimes making his final trip when he sets out to sea and sinks his boat? Here and elsewhere, Margaret Williams’s film did not blend the artifice of opera with opportunities ‘cinema’ allowed sufficiently well. Add to this the distractingly prominent microphones of the soloists taped onto their right cheeks and it all seems like a missed opportunity … though I suspect the budget available wasn’t huge.

Worst was that it was performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack of the Britten-Pears Orchestra and some of the chorus. Just like when ballet music is not performed live and the dancing often lacks spontaneity, so did the singing here when the primary requirement of the soloists is never to be ahead or behind the music. Truth is, it might have been better had they lip-synched throughout and this might have perversely allowed most of the performances some greater freedom. On its own the music has a great brooding potency and as seen against the natural backdrop of the North Sea how could it not? When any singing was involved its intrinsic drama seemed a little reined it, however, the attempted joviality of the roundelay ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ and the menacing cries of ‘Grimes … Peter Grimes’ – as two great ensemble moments – retained an engrossing power.

The casting of the subsidiary characters was very strong, with the always reliable Catherine Wyn-Rogers  as a fine Mrs Sedley, the nosey battle-axe, and David Kempster (not quite the slim figure I remember meeting at the start of his career) a suitably grizzled, yet sympathetic, seadog Balstrode. The ‘Nieces’ (Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford) were a little less disturbing than usually are seen these days but were still convincing and well sung. There was some wonderfully expressive singing from Giselle Allen as the protective and caring Ellen Orford; particularly moving was her concern for the young apprentice, as well as, Grimes himself. Of the even more minor characters only Charles Rice’s venal Ned Keene stood out and the rest – good singers as they undoubtedly are – were more nonentities than real characters.

I suspect all, including Alan Oke’s gaunt, haggard Peter Grimes, would have been happier in a real theatre. There is some beautifully controlled singing from him, especially his ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, but some that was not so good to my ears. Though I have never listened to him I suspect Peter Pears’s Grimes would have been a bit like this, Oke seemed distracted and less emotionally engaged than I would have hoped and I prefer my Grimeses either more the lyrical visionary or brawny bully – and Alan Oke’s otherwise valiant portrayal was neither one nor the other.

To repeat this is a very worthwhile record of a one-of, unlikely to be ever repeated, happening but I remain pleased that I was too busy to journey to the Suffolk coast and probably be disappointed.

Jim Pritchard

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