11 Jun 2013

Peter Grimes in Concert

I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.

For, it was with this alienated, brutal fisherman — both villain and victim — that it all started.

What might not have been anticipated was that during this Festival we would be offered Grimes in the comfort of the Snape Maltings concert hall and Grimes in the eponymous fisherman’s natural element: quite literally ‘On the Beach’, with the sounds which inspired Britten — the immense, titanic surges of the North Sea, the icy whistles of the north-east wind, the shrieks of cormorants and bitterns — no longer musical echoes but actually forming part of the fabric of the score.

More of the latter anon. For this performance, the second of two concert performances, we were comfortably and conventionally settled in the Maltings, the stage massed with the forces of the choruses of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the players of the Britten—Pears Orchestra.

But, there was nothing ‘conservative’ or ‘run-of-the-mill’ about the performance, led by a dynamic Steuart Bedford, who urged his instrumentalists and singers through an intense, urgent reading of the score; this may have been a concert performance but there was more drama and concentration than is sometimes found on many an opera house stage. There was not a vocal score in sight, and the singers — despite being attired in black concert dress — vividly and persuasively inhabited their roles. Either side of Bedford, stretching the length of the front of the stage, they transported us from shingle shore to public house, from church nave to craggy cliff; never out of role, even when seated or silent, the cast totally convinced as they braced the storms, both literal and figurative.

The ubiquitous surtitles were for once absent; every word was crystal clear. Of course, Britten’s word-setting and scoring help, as do the wonderful acoustic in the Maltings hall, and the nearness of the singers — not projecting across the orchestral forces but directly to the audience from the front of the stage — but this was still impressive communication of great immediacy.

Making his debut in the role of Peter Grimes was Alan Oke. Now that over sixty years have passed since the opera’s premiere, and the role has broken free from Peter Pears’ shadow, given the long line of esteemed interpreters past and present it must still be quite a daunting prospect for a tenor to step into these shoes and make the fisherman’s boots his own. However, one would not have sensed this from Oke’s assured, thoughtful and intelligent performance. This was not a burly, bellicose Grimes; nor, indeed, a dreamy aesthete. But, there was much anger as well as poignant hope; both despair and dreams.

A slight figure among the more brawny fisher-folk, Oke strikingly presented Grimes’s introversion and isolation. His tone was focused and clear, conveying the essential honesty — and self-honesty — of Grimes. So often alone with his thoughts, by turns hopeful and disheartened, his moments of ‘connection’ with Ellen Orford — sung with poise and control by Giselle Allen — and Balstrode (a superb David Kempster) were briefly mesmerising but tragically ephemeral. I found Grimes’ troubling interruption during the pub scene, ‘The Great Bear and Pleiades’, even more distressing than usual. The hushed, veiled beauty of the tenor melody — the sustained repeated notes slowly descending with tragic inevitability and finally cadencing in a poignant, soft C major — revealed Grimes’s absolute introspection; there was less a sense of airy visions than a delicate synthesis of reverie and desolation. The quashing of his haunting reflections by the contrapuntal strains of the muscular shanty, ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, was ruthless and cold.

Grimes is plausibly ‘misunderstood’ by the bigoted Borough; but here he also retained an inner essence that was unfathomable to us too. Throughout, Oke used the beauty of his voice to show us the ‘good’ in Grimes, while insisting on his uncompromising defiance — most bitterly conveyed in the savage fragments of his final ‘mad aria’, that powerfully enhanced the sense of waste, the futility of the tragedy.

The rest of the cast were similarly impressive. Giselle Allen’s sumptuous warm tone encouraged our own feelings of sympathy for the brusque Grimes, and she thoughtfully suggested her own separation from the condemnatory, hostile community. Her final act ‘embroidery aria’ evoked an affecting mood of quiet understanding, if not acceptance.

David Kempster was vocally and dramatically engaging as Balstrode, powerfully conveying his wisdom and kindness, which is ultimately tempered by realism. With deft touches Robert Murray (Bob Boles) and Charles Rice (Ned Keene) neatly and sharply defined their roles, the latter’s red socks a natty complement to Keene’s louche, self-important posturing.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers resisted the temptation to make a caricature of the hypocritical, self-deluding Mrs Sedley, bringing a wry humour to her portrayal, an approach which was matched by Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford as the two Nieces. The bright clarity of their young voices made the characters credible, and they flirted playfully with Swallow (Henry Waddington) in Act 3. The Nieces were overseen by a sassy Auntie, sung forcefully, with rich tone and feisty spirit, by Gaynor Keeble.

The soloists were supported by some excellent choral singing, the voices massing into a disturbing, unrelenting force at times, the posse’s hysterical, pitiless demands for ‘Peter Grimes!’ spine-chillingly overpowering.

From the opening jaunty rhythmic skips of the Prologue to the mournful tuba calls which draw Grimes to his watery grave, the players of the Britten-Pears Orchestra were on splendid form. Every gesture was crisp and clear, the colours myriad and fresh. The passion and drive of the instrumental interludes confirmed their absolute commitment; often performed in the concert hall, here the musical coherence and dramatic relevance was synthesised, as projections of Maggie Hambling’s North Sea ink drawings of 2006 provided visual images to complement the aural landscape.

So, now to the beach where, as the sun sets on 17, 19 and 21 June, Peter Grimes will be en plein air; given the bracing bite of the salty North Sea gusts, one should probably hope that the evening is fair, but less clement weather would at least offer the audience a brief taste of the endurance and ‘perpetual struggle’ (as Britten put it) of those whose lives depend upon the sea and are, in the words of Grimes himself, ‘native, rooted here’.

Fortunately for those who missed this magnificent performance, a live 2CD recording will be issued shortly. However many interpretations you own, make sure that you add this to your collection.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Alan Oke: Peter Grimes; Giselle Allen: Ellen Orford; David Kempster: Captain Balstrode; Gaynor Keeble: Auntie; Lexi Hutton: First Niece; Charmian Bedford: Second Niece; Robert Murray: Bob Boles; Henry Waddington: Swallow; Catherine Wyn-Rogers: Mrs Sedley; Christopher Gillett: Rev Horace Adams; Charles Rice: Ned Keene; Stephen Richardson: Hobson; Steuart Bedford: conductor; The Chorus of Opera North with the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; Britten—Pears Orchestra. Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Sunday, 9th June 2013.