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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.
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.