Peter Grimes comes ashore as the Dutchman in Stefan Herheim’s new Munich production

GermanyGermany Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Children’s Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper / Edward Gardner (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Miriam Hoyer) from Munich’s Nationaltheater, 6.3.2022. (JPr)

Stuart Skelton (Grimes, centre) in Bayerische Staatsoper’s Peter Grimes © W Hoesl

Director – Stefan Herheim
Set design – Silke Bauer
Costume design – Esther Bialas
Lighting – Michael Bauer
Video – Torge Møller
Dramaturgy – Malte Krasting, Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Chorus director – Stellario Fagone

Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Balstrode – Iain Paterson
Auntie – Claudia Mahnke
Nieces – Lindsay Ohse, Emily Pogorelc
Bob Boles – Thomas Ebenstein
Swallow – Brindley Sherratt
Mrs Sedley – Jennifer Johnston
Rev Horace Adams – Robert Murray
Ned Keene – Konstantin Krimmel
Hobson – Daniel Noyola
Boy – Jakob Biber

This premiere began with Bavarian State Opera’s artistic director Serge Dorny’s reflection on the 1500km it is from Munich and the war in Ukraine and how pacifist Benjamin’s Britten’s Peter Grimes had been created in the middle of the Second World War and similar dark times. He ended by hoping for ‘Freiheit. Demokratie and Brüderlichkeit’ (‘Freedom, Democracy and Fraternity’) before Edward Gardner and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester drew the audience to their feet in silent tribute with an emotional rendition of the European anthem, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. The typically harrowing performance of Peter Grimes that followed would have done little to lighten anyone’s mood.

The Borough was the name of George Crabbe’s 1810 poem which inspired Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater. It is a very powerful and dark evocation of the outsider (Grimes) hounded to death by a self-righteous seaside community (‘Borough’). Peter Grimes does not rate highly in the list of my favourite operas, mainly because I am uncertain as to whether it really does imply that Grimes is guilty of the death of his apprentices. Personally I have always had problems with the young children and the abuse they suffer in this opera. Also, while Richard Wagner is never left alone by the academics because in their view a composer must always include his private thoughts in his works, we are supposed to suspend belief that nothing from the lives of Britten or his life-partner, Peter Pears (the first Grimes), ever gets into this opera. Of course it is easy to say yes it does, since they were ‘outsiders’ in a world where homosexuality was illegal, suffering the intrusion into their private lives by a community of others when they would probably have secrets to hide themselves.

Anyway that is me and what does director Stefan Herheim have to say about all this and his approach to the opera? In an interview for Munich’s Merkur he said the following: ‘Since no one has anything solid against Grimes, there can be no court verdict, just a rumour verdict. Grimes himself is not aware of any guilt. The play is not a character study of an alleged child killer or sociopath. With a view to the homosexuality of Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears, for whom he wrote the title role, it makes sense to focus everything on social intolerance against taboo sexual orientations. My esteemed colleague Christof Loy did this not too long ago at my future house, the Theater an der Wien [where Herheim will soon be artistic director], and redeemed it phenomenally theatrically. His reading answers certain questions about Grimes’s otherness. But I am interested in the extreme adaptability and the normative behaviour of everyone else. The ones who use Grimes as a dumping ground for everything they fear.’

But who is Peter Grimes? This would involve another long dissertation as Peter Pears (who I met late in his life) would never be the brute with psychological problems as Herheim shows him here. This owes more to Jon Vickers’s famous portrayal that I saw at Covent Garden more than forty years ago than Pears. Britten gives the tortured fisherman the qualities of a poet and visionary amongst his violent outbursts; just think of when he sings ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’. When I hear that I remember the great ‘lost’ Grimes of Alberto Remedios who was forever covering Vickers who was never sick and only gave a few performances of this role in South America and in concert, including this scene during an English National Opera gala (available on YouTube). Not the greatest actor (but fully capable of both anger and poetry) Remedios however had the complete voice to cover Grimes’s extreme range. Stuart Skelton – as heard through loudspeakers – is beginning to find it difficult to control his unrelenting stentorian voice at this stage of his career. Skelton resorted to a crooning mezza voce for the role’s highest lines, his pitch was a little uncertain when singing unaccompanied and when his stamina was being sorely tested his voice occasionally betrayed him. However, Skelton is a great bear of a man and very clearly showed a mind in disarray and not at one with the world around him.

Bayerische Staatsoper’s Peter Grimes © W Hoesl

Silke Bauer’s single set seems initially like a church hall on England’s east coast with a stage on the stage to the rear which can be lowered or raised again just as the ceiling (with its hints of an upturned hull of a boat) goes up and down to create the pub, the church and, possibly, Grimes’s hut. Through Torge Møller’s video, in the distance we see – amongst other imagery – stormy skies and seas, a full moon, an eclipse, or a swirling school of fish. There is some suggestion of a mystery play being performed with a two-dimensional boat and waves on the stage. Costumes are not mid-nineteenth century but, more likely, late-twentieth century.

We begin as the Borough gathers to the sound of wind, waves and birds. There is just a single window to one side with a door to the other which when it opens become a matter of showing us what the wind blows in. The chorus sing loudly enough but some of the English words tend to get lost and they are often milling around with no great purpose – and too frequently static and facing forward – whilst other movement looks fairly random most of the time. That Grimes is prone to violence and the townsfolk are frightened of him is clear on his first appearance in his blue dungarees and cable knit sweater. Throughout this Peter Grimes the orchestral interludes were ‘staged’ and during ‘Dawn’ there is a young boy (Jakob Biber) in underwear and Balstrode is costumed exactly like Grimes who is seen walking into the sea at the back as the boy comes to the prompt box at the front and covers himself in Grimes’s sweater.

What is Herheim showing us here? Was Grimes originally Balstrode’s apprentice? This is certainly suggested near the end of the opera when we see Grimes in a white suit just like his new apprentice, John, when he is wearing his ‘Sunday best’ and interacting with the Borough at the church service in Act II. What is clear is that when Grimes brings his boat ashore it rises a bit like the Flying Dutchman’s ship and is this another hint as to what Herheim is telling us about Grimes the pariah? To be honest this production could equally have been used to create a performance of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Although that opera ends in the Dutchman’s redemption because of Senta’s sacrifice, in Peter Grimes it is the fisherman who sacrifices himself to escape the mob chasing him and perhaps help save the reputation of the loyal woman that he wanted to marry and he leaves behind.

A solidly cast ensemble is led by Iain Paterson’s gruffer and less sympathetic than usual Balstrode and he looked like a typical salty old seadog. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s is an Ellen Orford younger than we sometimes see. She was suitably tender and caring towards the boy John. While mostly left at the fringes of what Herheim showed us, Willis-Sørensen’s Ellen really did seem to have hopes of something good happening between her and Grimes until the very end. Ellen attempts to follow him to his death (Senta-like?) until she is pulled back from the brink to be welcomed back by the Borough. Willis-Sørensen sang well but hearing all her words was an issue on a few occasions.

Amongst Grimes’s peers unfit to judge him, Brindley Sherratt’s dirty old man of a lawyer, Swallow, stood out, with good support from Thomas Ebenstein’s Bob Boles, Robert Murray’s Rev Horace Adams, as well as Konstantin Krimmel’s sleazy Ned Keene, the peddler of drugs, last seen dropping his trousers and being pleasured by the two enthusiastic (shown barely legal?) pig-tailed Nieces (Lindsay Ohse and Emily Pogorelc). Others bringing their characters to life were Claudia Mahnke as a blowsy and fearsome Auntie, the pub landlady, in her leopard print jacket and short skirt. Jennifer Johnston was the sanctimonious, prying, laudanum-addict Mrs Sedley dressed in black like a widow. I wondered who Herheim is suggesting she might be because this character is more prominent than usual? She is the one who ultimately condemns Grimes (‘Murder most foul it is’) but we often see Mrs Sedley looking out to sea here, has she lost someone to the waves or does she recognise Ellen Orford in her younger self?

Thanks to Edward Gardner conducting one of his signature operas, it made Britten’s wonderful instrumental interludes the musical highlights of this performance and he particularly brought tumult and danger to a visceral ‘Storm’. Elsewhere Gardner conducted with absolute authority, staggering intensity, drama and emotion supported by the excellent Bayerisches Staatsorchester for whom Britten must be an undiscovered country as the opera has apparently not been heard in Munich for over twenty years. I suspect Herheim’s production might still be a work in progress and could gain greater focus with subsequent performances and any revivals.

Jim Pritchard

For Antoine Lévy-Leboyer’s review click here.

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