An Admirable Peter Grimes

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland Britten: Peter Grimes  Soloists,Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Erik Nielsen (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich. 24.5.2014 (JR)

Peter Grimes  Photo: Suzanne Schwiertz
Peter Grimes
Photo: Suzanne Schwiertz

Peter Grimes:          Christopher Ventris
Ellen Orford:            Emily Magee
Captain Balstrode:    Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Auntie:                   Irène Friedli
Niece 1:                  Sen Guo
Niece 2:                  Julia Riley
Bob Boles:               Benjamin Bernheim
Swallow:                 Donald Maxwell
Mrs. Sedley:            Felicity Palmer
Rev. Horace Adams: Tobias Hächler
Ned Keene:             Alex Lawrence
Hobson:                  Valerij Murga
Fisherman:              Christoph Filler
Fisherwoman: Dara Savinova
Lawyer:                  Kristof Lundin
Dr. Crabbe:             Hartmut Kriszun

Director:                 David Pountney
Sets:                      Robert Israel
Costumes:               Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting:                  Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus:                  Ernst Raffelsberger

Britten is not standard fare in Switzerland. Whilst there have been a spate of “War Requiems” over the last years, a revival of “Peter Grimes” has been a long time coming and is most welcome. It is also pleasing to see “The Turn of the Screw” on Zurich Opera’s schedule for next season. Few in the audience are attuned to Britten’s unique sound world and few know the opera. It is therefore heart-warming to report that Zurich Opera’s revival of a David Pountney production (first seen here some 10 years ago) is a triumph.

Pountney highlights the various moral failings of virtually all the townsfolk, whether lawyer, doctor or preacher, making it all the more galling to witness the blinkered sadistic persecution of a gruff, admittedly rough fisherman, who in this production attracts our sympathy throughout. It is his old friend Balstrode who reminds us that Grimes’ first apprentice arrived from the workhouse utterly malnourished and unable to withstand a day without fresh drinking water. His second apprentice slips down a 40 feet precipice outside Grimes’ hut after a landslide in a storm has washed away the path to the beach. Balstrode also reminds us incidentally that workhouse children are born out of wedlock (“something of the sort befits brats conceived outside the sheets”), have come from a bleak existence and are lucky to have found a decent apprenticeship at all.

Stage designer Robert Israel has devised a black wooden set with poles and bars and a ramp traversing the stage at an upper level. He perches a large group of townsfolk up high on the poles to watch the goings-on in the Borough, whilst they go about their daily business, mending, sewing, reading, snoozing. Occasionally this distracts visually from the main action, there are always lots of people on stage – sometimes just a few would be better but once perched up a pole, they are difficult to remove quickly. Only at the very end, when Grimes sails out to his suicide, do we actually see a boat and the sea. Until then the set serves as the interior of the courthouse, “The Boar” and Grimes’ hut. It serves less well for the Sunday morning scene on the beach, though the ramp comes into its own to allow a visually effective procession of the congregation descending from church whilst still singing from their (red) hymn books. The back projection is of two giant planets, possibly the moon, which change colour from time to time, perhaps a link to the control of the tides or Grimes’ affection for astronomy. When Grimes realises it is his time to take leave of life, Pountney uses a small platform centre stage, which lifts and tilts hydraulically, with sea mist swirling underneath and projections of waves replacing the planets. Grimes climbs “aboard” and grasps the mast as he sings his last lament, having carried the heavy mast onto the ship, evoking the Crucifixion. Balstrode and Orford look on, each with an apprentice on their lap. It is a clever comprehensible production throughout.

Top of the list of the vocal plaudits must be British tenor Christopher Ventris as Grimes. He is more in the Jon Vickers mould than Philip Langridge or Peter Pears; a firm, gruff reading but a strong tenor, a seasoned Grimes. His delivery was spot on in terms of intonation and diction always very clear. Only right at the end did he run out of lubricant – as so often the case in this arduous role.  Particularly moving was his rendition of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades…” silencing the people in the pub and auditorium alike.

Emily Magee was a strident and effective Ellen Orford, more operatic in style than motherly but none the worse for that. Magee and Ventris made a perfect match.

I have my problems with Jan-Hendrik Rootering nowadays. A renowned Wagnerian singer of past decades, he is now inconsistent. His volume level was frequently too low, there were occasional lapses in intonation and rather wooden acting. He always looked rather tired.

Luckily there were marvels in the minor roles. Irène Friedli was a flighty Auntie, with German accent recalling Marlene Dietrich. Her nieces, sung by Sen Guo and Julia Riley, made a coquettish pair and their contribution in the quartet “From the gutter…” (together with Friedli and Magee) was a moving vocal highlight.

Strong tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Bob Boles stood out impressively from amongst the townsfolk. It was wonderful to see two well-known Brits come out to bolster the Swiss locals, in the form of Donald Maxwell as Swallow and Felicity Palmer as a crotchety Mrs. Sedley. They are both, I was pleased to note, still in fine fettle.

Tobias Hächler made an excellent Reverend Horace Adams, Alex Lawrence a fine Ned Keene and Hobson was sung by a suitably gruff Valerij Murga.

In the pit Erik Nielsen displayed a firm command of the music’s structure though he chose not to highlight the work’s many dissonances (perhaps to sweeten the pill for the local audience). There were some lapses in communication between conductor and stage, which will hopefully be ironed out in the later performances, but some passages (particularly percussion) showed this music is not in the orchestra’s blood. The chorus were magnificent; their cries of “Peter Grimes” were blood curdling.

One oddity is worth a mention: at the final curtain call, Ellen Orford appeared not with one, or two but three apprentices. No third apprentice is mentioned in the libretto and so I scoured Crabbe’s lengthy poem which indicates Grimes may have had three boys in all.  Ventris then appeared at the curtain call counting his fingers to three and looking quizzical.

An admirable performance of surely Britain’s and Britten’s finest opera.

John Rhodes

















John Rhodes

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