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Britten: Peter Grimes
14 Jan 2010

Britten: Peter Grimes

Are you sitting comfortably?

Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes

Magee, Nikiteanu, Trattnigg, Chuchrova, Kallisch; Ventris, Muff, Schasching, Angas, Zysset, Davidson, Murga. Zürich Oper. Franz Welser-Möst, conductor.

EMI Classics 50999 5 00971 9 7 [DVD]

$22.49  Click to buy

That polite inquiry seems to have been on the mind of David Pountney as he came to the Zurich Opera House to direct Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Chairs dominate the set design of Robert Israel. White-washed, stiff-backed chairs — tilted, upside-down, atop pillars, empty and occupied, placed here, there, everywhere.

The concept veers between the intriguing and the irritating. Perhaps Pountney sees the confined nature of village life as being as punishing and restrictive as being forced to sit like a schoolchild. Or does the director see the villagers’ prejudices as “deep-seated”? Any number of interpretations may present themselves, but without any coalescing around a theme pertinent to the opera, in the end the chairs just seem like a staging gambit — one not especially visually appealing, either.

Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are the expected — a wooly, dark-hued sweater for Grimes, prim dress for Ellen Orford, and grays and blacks for the villagers, except for the “nieces” of Auntie. Mixing an abstract setting with traditional costumes has become ubiquitous, most probably because it may forestall the complaints of the traditionalists, while giving a production some claim to freshness. In this case, the compromise wears away at any sense of insight or incisiveness.

A more interesting contribution comes from conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who leads a reading of sharpness, even astringency, making Britten’s basically tonal score sound like a stepchild of Berg’s Wozzeck. The famous interludes have a fierce power; even “Dawn” has intensity and trepidation. A decent cast sings well, though without the individual profile Welser-Möst brings to his conducting. Christopher Ventris has the voice but not the presence to make Grimes tragic or complex. He doesn’t seem worth either Ellen Orford’s conflicted devotion or the villagers’ unmodulated animosity. Emily Magee’s strong vocals and sturdy presence as Ellen make the character seem less fragile than self-deluded — a viable option, but one that mutes the opera’s terror. The rest of the cast is able.

EMI Classics provides no bonus features and a bare-bones booklet. The 150-minute performance also spreads out over two discs. It’s a too cool presentation of what should be a shiver-inducing opera.

Chris Mullins

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