Intense and moving Peter Grimes in Oldenburg

GermanyGermany Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus, Extra Chorus and Extras, Oldenburgisches Staatstheater; Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester, / Vito Cristofaro (conductor). Oldenburg State Theatre, 5.5.2024. (DMD)

[l-r] Melanie Lang (Mrs Sedley), Kihun Yoon (Balstrode), and Sally du Randt (Ellen Orford) © Stephan Walzl

Director, Stage, and Costume design – Hinrich Horstkotte
Lighting design – Regina Kirsch
Dramaturgy – Stephanie Twiehaus
Chorus director – Thomas Bönisch
Extra Chorus director – Felix Schauren

Peter Grimes – Roman Payer
Ellen Orford – Sally du Randt
Captain Balstrode – Oğulcan Yılmaz
Ned Keene – Leonardo Lee
First Niece – Paola Leoci
Second Niece – Elena Harsányi
Auntie – Marie-Sophie Janke
Mrs Sedley – Melanie Lang
Bob Boles – Johannes L. Maas
Swallow – João Fernandes
Rev Horace Adams – Gabe Clarke
Hobson – Alwin Kölblinger
Boy – Michael Kölblinger

This production provided a very intense, gripping and moving experience that merged music, singing, set and costumes with the plot into a consistent wholeness. Hinrich Horstkotte, who combined the roles of director, stage and costume designer, focused on the insight of the restrictions placed on a small community by nature and the environment. The fishing village was governed by harsh, predominantly cold weather, where struggling against the elements for sheer survival was the major focus of daily life. Such a life hardens people, in different ways. Some need institutions or representatives of religion, law and order to maintain some level of belief and dignity, some focus on family ties and structures, or at least on dreams and hopes. The members of the community were close-knit, everyone knew everyone else and their secrets very well.

As a retired merchant skipper, Balstrode commanded natural authority among the villagers. Outsiders were immediately spotted and people united in condemning the outsider. Anything may count to be considered an outsider. Pastor Adams and Swallow the lawyer would have been deemed outsiders had it not been for their unchallenged institutional and professional power. João Fernandes as Swallow was placed on the first level balcony of the auditorium for the opera’s beginning, adding to his higher position in the village hierarchy. Even the teacher, Ellen Orford, given that she was not one of the fisherfolk, faced being pushed into that role. The respect she was given because of her assumed superiority was on shaky grounds for the very reason that she was considered superior. More association with the problematic character of Peter Grimes – the outsider par excellence – would soon make her a full-blown outsider as well.

Peter Grimes was shown in the production as a man affected by failure at his hard profession, by the fact that he had no way of escaping and by a certain lack of flexibility in considering alternatives (with regard to the suggestion that he get help elsewhere, without having a boy work for him). All this led to, or was combined with, his lack of self-control: he frequently lost his temper, and the boys bore the brunt of those outbursts. The production also emphasised his sadness, despair, and his hope for a better life with Ellen Orford. The feelings of the villagers about the fate of the boys came across as a mixture of genuine concern and welcome gossip.

[l-r] Betsy Horne (Ellen Orford), Marie-Sophie Janke (Auntie), Oğulcan Yilmaz (Balstrode), with the chorus. © Stephan Walzl

Despite, or possibly even because of a high ceiling, the village hall central to the set was a dark and gloomy place that did not offer any feeling of comfort or protection. It was lit accordingly. The space later became the village pub, not much more cheerful or welcoming, and, when the roof and the back wall were removed, became an outdoor area with a view of an, at times, brighter outdoor dunes area (suggesting sunshine). The costumes suggested the poverty of the village, and those who may have been a little better off did not show this by wearing different clothes from the poorer villagers. Even the more colourful outfits for the two sisters did not suggest affluence or even a little more money. The jersey Ellen Orford had knitted for the boy John, of soft wool and in a comforting shade of ochre, was a striking exception among the rough fabrics, shapes and lack of colours.

The music supported and evoked the moods suggested by set, costumes and plot. Vito Cristofaro attended closely to the variety of rhythm and intensity, never drowning the soloists and becoming one with the chorus. Under the leadership of directors Thomas Bönisch and Felix Schauren, the chorus demonstrated striking levels of unison and excellent diction as well as appropriate balance between hushed and fortissimo singing. The smaller named roles were cast with singers from the Oldenburg company and members of the company’s opera studio. All demonstrated clear diction, very good acting skills and compelling singing. The three main roles were performed by guest artists. Oğulcan Yılmaz portrayed Balstrode as potentially well-meaning, though only to a certain extent. He was the manager of the village, sharing in the villagers’ narrow-mindedness. His well-rounded baritone supported that air of authority well, while adding sharper tones as needed to indicate his character’s limits.

Sally du Randt as Ellen Orford started out with a slightly nasal, husky voice, which soon gave way to a crystal clarity and precision, a purity of tone that was very well suited to the production’s endeavour to describe this character as an outsider. Her voice more than metaphorically cut through the orchestra, it was sometimes on the verge of becoming shrill, but never actually did. Roman Payer has experience as a young heldentenor, having sung Florestan and Siegmund as well as Peter Grimes at the Landestheater Coburg in 2023. His voice was strong enough for the role. He paced himself well, never running out of steam. The voice sounded pleasant throughout, even in scenes or moments of high fortissimo drama. He was equally confident in quieter and solo passages. His acting was convincing, allowing the problematic nature of his character to become apparent and making his yearning for a modest level of happiness even more moving.

Time flew even though the overall duration of the performance, with one full interval and once shorter break for a scene change, was 190 minutes. The audience rewarded the performers with warm applause.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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