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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.