Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

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.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

Soldier Songs in San Diego

David Little composed his one-man opera, Soldier Songs, ten years ago and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas of New Haven, Connecticut, premiered it in 2011. At San Diego Opera, the fifty-five minute musical presentation and the “Talk Back” that followed it were part of the Shiley dētour Series which is held in the company’s smaller venue, the historic Balboa Theatre.

Barber of Seville [Hollywood Style] in Los Angeles

On Saturday evening November 12, 2016, Pacific Opera Project presented Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera The Barber of Seville in an updated version that placed the action in Hollywood. It was sung in the original Italian but the translation seen as supertitles was specially written to match the characters’ Hollywood identities.

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

A Butterfly for the ages in a Butterfly marred by casting ineptness and lugubrious conducting.

Kiss Me, Kate: Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

In 1964, 400 years after the birth of the Bard, the writer Anthony Burgess saw Cole Porter’s musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate, a romping variation on The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare’s comedy, Burgess said, had a ‘good playhouse reek about it’, adding ‘the Bard might be regarded as closer to Cole Porter and Broadway razzmatazz’ than to the scholars who were ‘picking him raw’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]
31 Jan 2014

Peter Grimes, ENO

For many years, the shadow of Peter Pears hovered at the shoulder of any tenor who dared to offer their own reading of Britten’s equivocal fisherman. But, as the aural memories of Pears’ visionary dreamer soften — in the opera house, at least, if not on recordings — modern singers are increasingly released from the ghostly echoes of the past.

Peter Grimes, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes

Photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera

 

However, this revival of David Alden’s exceptional 2009 production of Peter Grimes at ENO makes one wonder if, in future, tenors will be similarly measured against Stuart Skelton’s heart-rending Peter Grimes, for the Australian tenor here re-visits a role which in recent years he has increasingly made his own.

The question has so often been: visionary dreamer or brutal realist? Skelton’s Peter Grimes is both. He makes the ruthless fisherman’s dreams seem rational and attainable, and yet, simultaneously, poignantly deluded, forever to remain tauntingly out of reach. This Grimes is a divided man: ruthless and defiant, and tragically vulnerable. Determined to challenge and transcend the monstrous hypocrisy of the ludicrous but venomous inhabitants of The Borough, he remains pitifully subject to their warped morality and materialism. Skelton’s Grimes has a poignant humanity which is magnified by the ugly depravity of the Borough’s cast of grotesques.

Alden updates George Crabbe’s eighteenth-century milieu to the time of the opera’s composition — Britten made the first sketches of the opera aboard the Axel Johnson liner as he headed back to Britain in 1942, having spent three years in America, to the disapproval of many in his homeland. And, as the back wall tilts to spew the parade of outlandish odd-balls into the court-room, one is reminded of other, more recent oppressive, maniacal regimes.

A severe, sharply angled barn (set design by Paul Steinberg) serves as court room, workplace and public house, its sloping walls swivelling to transform into shore-side promenade, storm-struck exterior and Grimes’s cliff-top hut.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Rebecca de Pont Daves, Mary Bevan, Elza ven den Heever, Rhian Lois (c) Robert Workman.pngRebecca de Pont Daves as Auntie, Mary Bevan as Second Niece, Elza ven den Heever as Ellen Orford and Rhian Lois as First Niece

Despite the nautical buoy which looms at the right of the stage, some might lament the absence a tangible sea — the providential force in the lives of the community, both provider and destroyer. However, Adam Silverman’s terrific lighting renders the shimmers and storms of the ocean ever-present; at times the sheen of sun on water makes the back-stage gleam, the boundaries between land and ocean dangerously ambiguous. As the sea tempest approaches the coast, the radiance which filters through the tall windows of the wharf, as the day’s catch is cleaned and gutted, assumes first a fragile hint of grey and then a lowering dark intensity, revealing the vulnerability of those whose lives depend upon the whims of an indifferent natural world. When the lightning eventually releases its electric might, there is a sense of both welcome release and defenceless exposure.

Silverman’s illuminating glare is like a beam of truth. There is no hiding the ugly bruise which stains the apprentice’s shoulder, or the community’s vicious sadism. Particularly effective are the dark, towering silhouettes which hover in the background, shadows which suggest other lives and other selves — paths which might be taken but which remain forever out of reach. Thus, as Ellen urges Grimes’s young apprentice to enjoy the warm Sunday morning sunshine, they are taunted by both the Borough’s hypocritical hymn-singing and their own looming profiles. Nowhere is this more affecting that in Grimes’s Act 2 ‘mad scene’, where Skelton’s hulking contour forms multiple distant yet threatening doppelgängers, a symbol of his fractured self, taunting the disintegrating fisherman with past deeds and abandoned hopes. When Skelton shuffles off at the close, to take his boat on one last, fatal mission, one feels that he is escaping from himself as much as fleeing from the merciless Borough posse.

Skelton’s Grimes combines both gentleness and aggression, and he seems uneasy with either,; he is comfortable only when at work, fishing net in hand, at peace only when cradled by the ocean’s embrace. At the end of the Prologue duet, sung tenderly and with absolute technical assurance by Skelton and Elza Van den Heever (as Ellen Orford), the fisherman reaches out to take Ellen’s hand, before brusquely shoving her aside, unable to cast off his self-conscious pride, accept her affection and expose himself to love’s uncertainties.

Emotionally illiterate, this Grimes is similarly unaware of his physical might. Skelton welcomes the new apprentice who will help him ‘fish the sea dry’ and earn sufficient wealth to conquer the Borough’s scorn; but as he hoists the boy aloft, whirling him back to his hut, it is clear that he does not appreciate the danger that his muscular power and verbal suppression pose to the child. The apprentice — whose silent suffering is sensitively played by Timothy Kirrage — cowers in the bare hut in soundless misery and terror; but, his cliff-top fall is unequivocally an accident. As the rope which supports the boy snakes through Grimes’s fingers, his distress is palpable and it is concern, as well as the Borough’s hunting cries, that sends him scurrying desperately after the boy. When the mob arrive they find an empty shack and leave. But then, a stark, eerie vertical light illumines the cliff down which the boy has tumbled, at the bottom of which Grimes hunches, cradling the dead child in his arms. It is a heart-breaking moment. The villagers have sneered at Grimes — ‘call that a home’ — at end of Act 1; but, it is only home he knows and can offer.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Felicity Palmer (c) Robert Workman.pngFelicity Palmer as Mrs Sedley

Skelton squeezes every emotion from Britten’s score. ‘What harbour shelters peace?’ is both yearning and despairing, as Grimes’s hopes turn to angry desolation. At the conclusion of Act 1, he furiously ropes himself to the wall to confront the coming maelstrom. Like Lear, out-facing the raging winds and drenching downpour, Grimes both defies and invites the storm. Grimes and the storm are as one; as Balstrode says, ‘This storm is useful, you can speak your mind … There is grandeur in a gale of wind to free confession, set a conscience free’.

Yet, when Grimes attempts to share his vision with those sheltering in Auntie’s tavern, he is met with incredulity, confusion and disdain. Skelton’s voice was almost inaudible at the start of ‘Great Bear and Pleiades’, but the fragility possessed great presence, each repeated E gaining in intensity and assuming a new hue, before fading with the falling melody into poignant stillness — the arc of the phrases like the eternal ebb and flow of the waves, or the transient glimmer of a distant star. Out-voiced by the pub-goers’ shanty, ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, Skelton lumbers despairingly among the raucous revellers, a lone soul among the massed ranks of oppression and repression.

But, this is no one-man show; the cast is uniformly strong. While some of the principals are returning to re-visit their roles from 2009, two newcomers to the production play Grimes’s confidantes, Ellen Orford and Balstrode. Iain Paterson’s Balstrode is an imposing stage presence. Commanding of voice, and with characteristically excellent diction, Paterson is by turns a noble, authoritative figure among the Borough, then a weary sea-dog, limping stoically, seemingly worn down by Grimes’s own disaffection. Balstrode is not spared Grimes’s aggression, and Paterson uses his dark-toned, smooth bass-baritone to convey the old sailor’s shock and disappointment.

South African Elza van den Heever is superb as Ellen, her glowing mezzo soprano expressing both compassion and resigned realism. Van den Heever began tenderly, but later demonstrated considerable dramatic power and emotional sincerity. The meditative trio which closes Act 2 Scene 1, for Ellen, Auntie and the two Nieces, was wonderfully moving, a moment of repose and respite from the braying calls of the Borough, as the villagers march out, seeking Grimes, to the vicious beat of Hobson’s drum.

Rebecca de Pont Davies was a charismatic Auntie, mischievously swapping pin-striped suit for a floor-length sabre, the warmth of her middle register charming pub-goers and audience alike. As her Nieces, ENO Harewood Artists Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan brought a sparkling vocal brightness to their rather dark portrayal with its lingering suggestions of child abuse and exploitation.

Leigh Melrose reprised his role as Ned Keene, a pill-pushing, mustard-suited spiv, singing with compelling clarity; Matthew Best returned to the role of Swallow, his forceful pronouncements in the opening court scene drawing us immediately into the conflict. Felicity Palmer conveyed both the preposterousness and pathos of Mrs Sedley, while the Bob Boles of Michael Colvin was convincingly and absurdly sanctimonious.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Matthew Best, Rhian Lois, Leigh Melrose (c) Robert Workman.pngMatthew Best as Swallow, Rhian Lois as First Niece and Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene

The ENO chorus was on excellent form too; after a slightly untidy start in the Prologue, the precision of the ensemble was impressive in the subsequent set-pieces, and the power of their massed voices was chillingly resonant in the climactic posse scene.

Guiding all with characteristic assurance and powerful dramatic drive, conductor Edward Gardner yet again demonstrated an innate appreciation of Britten’s musico-dramatic structure and idiom. In the first of the instrumental interludes, the crystalline etching of flute, clarinet, violins, violas and harp alternated with majestic, dissonant surges from the timpani and brass; in the storm interlude the profound hammering of timpani and pizzicato double bass exploded beneath the chromatic whirling above.

My only doubt about Gardner’s authoritative reading concerns some of the tempi, which were often daringly slow, especially in the final act. The pauses between the posse’s hysterical cries, ‘Peter Grimes!’, were so extended that there was a risk of the tension breaking. Similarly, Skelton’s final monologue was audaciously drawn out; certainly, Grimes’s mental and physical dissolution was conveyed, but perhaps some of his self-consuming bitterness and fury was lost.

And, I’m not sure that the ending captures entirely the right note. In the last scene of the opera, Britten instructs that the women of the Borough should carry bundles of fishing nets down to the shore, as they sing of ‘the cold beginning of another day’. The implication is that, as Swallow spies ‘a boat, sinking out at sea’, the fisher-folk refuse to recognise their role in the tragedy that has ensued, and remain indifferent to Grimes’s anguish and death, unconcernedly resuming the routines of daily life. However, Alden’s Borough do not refuse to acknowledge the terrible events they have instigated; rather, they face the audience, unmoving, slowly declaiming the final scalic arcs, as if Grimes’s death has drained them of their own life-force.

Alden’s Borough is suffocating and stultifying; the director offers no open vistas to dilute the poison of hypocritical self-righteousness which poisons its inhabitants, just tantalising glimpses of the freedom and expanse of the sea which will ultimately salve and bless Grimes. Although the transvestism and sexual perversities of the Moot Hall party are somewhat anachronistic, they are a powerful reminder of the self-destructive force of perverted moralising. And, of the fragile defences of those who resist, who dare to be different, dare to dream.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Peter Grimes, Stuart Skelton; Ellen Orford, Elza van den Heever, Captain Balstrode, Iain Paterson; Auntie, Rebecca de Pont Davies; First niece, Rhian Lois; Second niece, Mary Bevan; Bob Boles, Michael Colvin; Swallow, Matthew Best; Mrs Sedley, Felicity Palmer; Reverend Horace Adams, Timothy Robinson; Ned Keene, Leigh Melrose; Hobson, Matthew Trevino; Apprentice, Timothy Kirrage; Doctor Crabbe, Ben Craze; Conductor, Edward Gardner; Director, David Alden; Assistant Director, Ian Rutherford; Set Designer, Paul Steinberg; Costume Director, Brigitte Reifenstuel; Movement Director, Maxine Braham; Lighting Designer, Adam Silverman; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Wednesday 29th January 2014.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):