02 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes by Opera North
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.
A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.
Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.
Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece
With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.
J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.
The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.
What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?
Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.
What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.
In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.
The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.
Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.
This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.
The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.
Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, which was new in 2012, returned to Glyndebourne on 3 July 2016 revived by Ian Rutherford.
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
It doesn’t get quite the international attention it deserves, however, because it’s based “up North”, as Londoners would say, in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland. This award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes shows why the company earns its excellent reputation.
Opera North has a real affinity for Britten, so with Phyllida Lloyd as director, this production is something of a milestone in Peter Grimes performance. Lloyd’s style grows from the inner dynamic of the opera. Everything focuses on the music, nothing distracts. The curtain lifts to reveal the corpse of the apprentice who died of thirst while lost at sea. It’s a metaphor for the whole opera. In the trial scene, Grimes is fenced in, claustrophobically, by a wall of pallets, held up by the townsfolk. Later these pallets are the bastions of the church, and the walls of the pub. It’s a simple device but effective, underlining the fundamental conflict between Grimes and the populace who inoculate themselves from the outside world with prayer and drink. Britten embeds this dichotomy firmly within his music. The “church” chorus and Ellen Orford’s monologue with the boy exist in parallel, without interaction. There’s drama enough in the orchestra, so Lloyd keeps things simple. Similarly, she doesn’t need to depict the sea, as such. Britten’s cadences sweep upwards and down like waves. “A ceaseless motion”, goes the text, “comes and goes like the tide,…rolls and ebbs, terrible and deep”.
This uncompromising focus on the drama in the music intensifies the disturbing psychological aspects of the opera. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Grimes was perceptive : he’s not meant to be sympathetic, but neither is he an object of hate. He may be cruelly insensitive, but both boys died of natural causes. This role requires a wide range, which Lloyd-Roberts delivers. He created Grimes when this production was premièred in October 2006, and much of the depth of the characterisation is due to him. If on this particular evening, his voice was a little tired at first, he vindicated himself totally in the “What is home” scene, when Grimes confronts the horror of his situation. This time, “the tide will not turn”, he will not “begin again”. The intensity of Lloyd-Roberts performance makes his decision to die at sea completely logical. That last scene, where the townsfolk sing of the tide pulling back out to sea “with string magnetic speed” was magical. Grimes is absorbed into the sea, and for a few moments, something quite magical happens in the orchestra, as the strings surge and the flute rises luminously above. This ending was brilliant, for Lloyd understands that, throughout the opera, Britten has stressed the relentless hard grind of the fishermen’s lives. “This unrelenting work”, as Ellen sings, that lets up for no man. So as the music fades, but on stage, the rhythm of life continues…..it’s a small detail, but expressing the spirit of the opera very perceptively.
Unlike some more matronly Ellen Orfords, Giselle Allen‘s vibrant characterisation gave a strong sexual charge to her relationship with Grimes. This is important to the interpretation of the opera, because it shows why Grimes drives himself so hard, because he wants to make a new life with Ellen, whom he sees as his redemption. He pushes his apprentices harshly because life at sea is harsh, as no doubt he learned himself a boy. Sexuality is a theme in this opera, from which this production bravely does not shirk away. The townsfolk hint that there’s something unhealthy about Grimes and his boys, so they mount a witch hunt. The chorus “Bring the branding iron and fire” was sung with frenzied energy, hinting that perhaps Grimes wasn’t the only person with desires to suppress. Indeed, Britten makes this clear in the text. Auntie and her “nieces” most certainly provide an outlet for some. As Auntie says, she and her girls say, “we comfort men”. One of the more disturbing, but entirely trenchant, aspects of this production was that the nieces were portrayed as children, one wearing pink and blue with white knee
socks. She’s underage, just like the boys Grimes is hunted down for harming. When she’s propositioned by the town lawyer, that pillar of society, the text is painfully explicit, but some productions shy away. Currently in the UK news, there’s a huge story about child abuse in Jersey, apparently covered up by official whitewash, so watching this production was decidedly uncomfortable. But it serves to show that Britten knew far more about hypocrisy and sexual bullying than he was able to articulate. In 1945, productions couldn’t really confront these issues openly. Now, we are unfortunately more able to appreciate just how deeply Britten understood the pain.
Yet Britten doesn’t judge. In contrast, Mrs Smedley delights in judging. “Crime is my hobby” she says. Although she’s right to be concerned about the boys, her motivation isn’t their welfare, but her own enjoyment of misery. Ethna Robinson’s Mrs Smedley bristles with barely contained hysteria, in contrast to Jonathan Summer’s Captain Balstrode, who stands for common sense. Good vignette parts all round, especially Yvonne Howard’s Auntie and Roderick Williams’s Ned Keene.
Claire Booth as Niece 2, Yvonne Howard as Auntie and Amy Freston as Niece 1.
Britten valued the orchestral elements in this opera so much that the Sea Interludes are often performed on their own as concert pieces. Farnes’s conducting was precise and muscular : there’s ambiguity aplenty in the music, so there shouldn’t be in performance. The solos, flute, violin and oboe were particularly moving, like extra voices, commenting on the action. What made this production, however, was the way it was built around the music. A lot of fuss is made of directing style, but in this case, the direction served totally to reveal deeper levels of meaning. The secret, I suspect, is “know your composer” and “know your opera”, through and through. Anyone wanting further evidence of Lloyd’s work with Opera North on Britten might be interested in their DVD of Gloriana.
Anne Ozorio © 2008