Britten: Peter Grimes *****
Aldeburgh Beach, 19th June 2013
For a nation frequently used to summers which last a mere fortnight (sometimes located in April) we’re awfully keen on staging performances in the great outdoors, be it theatre in Regents Park or opera in Holland Park (admittedly under a canopy). Come rain or shine, we’ll pitch up – preferably armed with a picnic and a golfing umbrella – to brave whatever the British summer can hurl our way. Apart from Tosca and Rome, few operas are so vividly or closely associated with their location as Peter Grimes is with Aldeburgh, yet the Aldeburgh Festival founded by Britten has never fully staged his breakthrough opera. What better way to celebrate the composer’s centenary than by remedying this situation? But instead of the comfort of Snape Maltings concert hall, why not stage the whole thing on Aldeburgh Beach? In the open air. That way, surely madness lies.
Dutifully, the naysayers piped up to proclaim the exercise a gimmick – the soloists will be hideously miked, the orchestra will emerge via a taped soundtrack reducing the whole things to karaoke. And it will rain. In addition, they lectured, none of the scenes in Peter Grimes actually takes place on the beach – “the sea is in the orchestra pit”. Well, that’s as maybe, but there are scenes on a street by the sea or in Grimes’ hut which is on the clifftop, so the sea is never very far away. What could be more perfect than using the sea as your backdrop? I swear I’ll never hear the fifth interlude, ‘Moonlight’, again without conjuring up the mental snapshot – aural as well as visual – of the mists swirling and the waves softly breaking on the Suffolk shingle. Added to which, you could taste the salt on your lips.
In the event, this second performance of the scheduled three this week was blessed with dry overhead conditions. When I arrived in the afternoon, a heavy mist meant walking to within twenty feet of the sea before one could see it, but by the time the performance began at 8:30pm, it had cleared so that, until night fell sometime between Acts I and II, the North Sea – in calm, millpond mode – framed Leslie Travers’ splendid set. Three times as wide as anything the Coliseum stage could house, it was a sloping quayside walk, fractured in places, lined by lampposts and populated by fishing boats, one of which was perched on its side to become Grimes’ hut. Tim Albery’s stage direction is so perfect, so natural. He sets it in the 1940s, at the time of the opera’s composition, with a brief allusion to World War II when the children – or ‘barnacles’ – are play-acting, waving a model spitfire (a real one made a flypast on opening night) and a Nazi flag. However, this period setting is never laboured.
Nature and the elements conspired to provide most of the special effects – mewing seagulls and wheeling swallows, rolling waves lapping against the shore, shingle crunching underfoot. There was some strobe lighting for the Storm sequence, though as it was still daylight at that point, it didn’t register with any great strength. When Alan Oke’s Grimes left the stage after his first scene and stood on the beach, looking out to sea as the First Interlude, ‘Dawn’, was playing, it provided the first ‘lump in the throat’ moment of the evening. When Grimes calls for help to haul in his boat ashore, he appears with a rope. Captain Balstrode and Ned Keane come to his aid… and a boat really is hauled in! Other stage movement is well managed. The men of the Borough head off to Grimes’ hut to the beat of Hobson’s drum, marching off along the shingle. So many magical moments, it’s difficult to recount them all.
Sound Intermedia provided most acceptable sound. Watching performers you are hearing miked takes a few minutes to adjust to, mainly because you’ll hear a voice and, because of the speakers dotted around the arena, you’ll not immediately be able to identify where it’s coming from on the stage, but the balance between orchestra and singers was fine. The Britten-Pears Orchestra, pre-recorded after concert performances in Snape, gave a vivid performance, the speaker sound more biased to treble than bass being the only quibble. Steuart Bedford, conducting from a corrugated-iron roofed bunker, miraculously kept the whole thing together, aided by some technological wizardry.
Oke’s Grimes is just an ordinary man, an outsider for sure, who wrestles with the inner demons of the death of his first apprentice. He is capable of great tenderness and it’s significant that when his second apprentice falls to his death from the roof of the upended boat/ hut, Grimes is nowhere near. Accidental circumstances indeed, but suspicion, rumour and counter-rumour are enough to have sealed the guilty verdict in the minds of the pursuing mob. Oke is not of the Vickers/ Heppner/ Skelton school of Grimes. The slightly nasal quality of his tenor reminded me strongly of Peter Pears, the role’s originator, and his liquid tone was mesmeric in ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ soliloquy.
Giselle Allen was an excellent Ellen Orford, refulgent tone at the top, especially fine in the ladies’ quartet in Act II and in a searing ‘Embroidery aria’. Her lower register was somewhat weaker, but she portrayed the widowed schoolteacher who endeavours to help Grimes with great skill. David Kempster had tremendous stage presence as Balstrode, his sturdy baritone and white whiskers giving the impression of a reliable old sea-dog.
The residents of Albery’s Borough are everyday folk, not the grotesques which inhabit the productions of Alden at the Coliseum and Jones at La Scala (review shortly) and by treating them as such, the mob mentality which builds through the opera is far more unsettling. By Act III, their hunt for Grimes finds us in the frame, torchlights scanning the audience in desperation as they bay his name. The ensemble cast was faultless, inhabiting roles many of them have sung elsewhere. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is an exemplary Mrs Sedley, finding the right mix of comic prude and dangerous meddler, while Gaynor Keeble was a feisty Auntie. Her ‘nieces’, Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford were both deliciously flirty. Robert Murray’s Bob Boles was extremely powerfully sung – a Grimes in the making? – while Christopher Gillett’s plangently voiced Rev Adams and Stephen Richardson’s resolute Hobson were masterfully created. Charles Rice was the good-humoured Ned Keane, while Henry Waddington was a sturdy Swallow.
The chorus members from Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (pre-recorded to amplify their contributions on the night) boasted significantly better diction than that heard at the Coliseum for last week’s Death in Venice and was in electrifying voice.
The scale of ambition in putting on these performances is immense. The organisation behind it – from the stage crew to the excellent stewards – was hugely impressive. That the weather played its part helped – the elements could have spoilt the party, though I suspect Grimes on the beach in the rain would have been just as memorable, if not as pleasant, an experience. One wonders what Britten would have thought of the venture. I suspect he would have initially disapproved, but such a performance should have won him over – it did me. If you’re unable to grab a place on the shingle for the final performance on Friday, there will be a cinema relay and DVD release in the autumn. ‘Grimes on the Beach’ was one of the great operatic experiences of my life, which will haunt my memories for decades.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.