One of, if not the, most important opera written post WWII. Probably the greatest opera written in the English language.
Such statements not only risk accusations of subjectivity but could be seen as the sort of faint praise that damns a work.
English National Opera provided persuasive evidence last night to support both statements and demonstrate that they are not trifling.
Prima la musica, or as we say in English, above all else, the music is supreme. Kudos of course to the masterful Ed Gardner and his splendid orchestra. But most praise to the very great Ben Britten. I listened to his music when I was very young (when he died I recognised his name, which is more than can be said when Elvis Presley died some months later).
The entire score is imbued with sounds of the sea. Each scene (two in each of three acts) is preceded by a Sea Interlude, evocative pieces of music without singing or drama. In this production, they chose to play them with the curtains closed; I chose to close my eyes and let the music engulf me. The themes continue throughout the scenes. As an unabashed percussion fan, I have to give special praise to that department, although it is less prominent than in many other Britten works. But that which lingered is an oft-repeated phrase with the clarinet and the piccolos. It's not a work where you leave humming the tunes (often these can be quite superficial); instead, the music creates the atmosphere, mood, context and drama. I am not synaesthetic but, nevertheless, I was left with an abiding sense of the sea.
Being the première of a new production I am obliged to write in some detail about David Alden's production.The scenery was dominated by trapezoids and the consequent triangles. The foundation of the sets were five trestle tables with marble-effect Formica tops. Used in combinations of three (for the Prologue in the Moot Hall), five (in The Boar) or three and two (in Grime's hut) they contributed to the trapezoid/triangle effect.
The choreography of the chorus often extended the trapezoid/triangle device, often to stunning visual effect. One very striking image came in Act III, outside the Moot Hall. The apex of the triangle of the Boar's Head was centre and front creating trapezoids either side, wide at the front of the stage and narrow at the back. The chorus and actors massed on the left (from the audience's POV). The colours of the costumes (mainly muted but Ned Keene in a bright mustard suit) and the lighting were evocative to me of a painting, familiar enough to be conjured up in my mind's eye but not so familiar that I can actually name it!.
Overall, the production was set mid-century. I have to confess to not being quite sure when. In some aspects it seemed very 1930s, but in other ways it seemed closer to 1940s. Auntie, a cross-dresser with a silver-topped cane, and Ned Keene in his spats, seemed left over from the 20s; the crowd waving Union Flags seemed 1945, as did the sailor's hornpipe (I had previously read a report on the Dress Rehearsal that referenced On the Town, and that seemed an apt description).Of course, in real 1945, when this was written, ordinary people would have been wearing the fashions of the 30s and possibly the 20s, too.
Such an updating will inevitably appal the purists who express their horror at the anachronisms (the buying of a boy from the workhouse; the reliance on a carter) yet don't seem to mind that an entire Borough execute all their conversations in song. They don't bother me, perhaps because I seek the inner meaning rather than a literal portrayal.
There s discussion in the programme about the theme of being an outsider, debating whether Britten (and his muse and life partner Pears) were influenced by their experience of being outsiders as Conscientious Objectors or as homosexuals. For me, the most powerful theme is mob justice. The Borough ostracises Grimes because a child apprentice died in his care; when they realise he is physically abusing the new boy and his love, Ellen Orford, they go mob-handed to his hut. Hearing the approaching crowd, he momentarily lets go of the rope that the apprentice is using to climb down the cliff; the apprentice falls to his death. The implication is that the Borough is responsible for his death.
Even more telling is one's knowledge that once the gossip has died down and the scandal is history, no one will remember or miss the children who died. No Safeguarding Children Board, no Serious Case Review, no Independent Enquiry. It was okay to sell a child into the 'care' of a man who was clearly totally unfit to care even for a hamster. Perhaps the Borough are not to be condemned for their summary justice by Mob; there was no real justice. I think one is supposed to have some sympathy for Grimes, perhaps a victim, too, of a society that knew no better (or, rather, did know but chose to do nothing). I don't. Surely, it is human instinct to protect not harm people who are weaker and more vulnerable.
I thought the lighting was marvellous. It is a dark story and it would be tempting and easy to reflect that in the lighting. This was not the case. Especially on the beach in Act II, the light was an accurate reflection of coastal light. The storm scenes were excellent, the contrasts of light and dark in time with the music.
In Act III Scene 1, the dance at the Moot Hall, there were scenes that, no doubt, will cause sensationalist reporting from some quarters. One of the nieces was simulating giving Ned Keene a hand job in perfect time to the music; Ned eventually finished himself off. An actor threw several times into a bucket; in between up-chucks he swiged beer from the bottle. And many of the male members of the Borough were seen lined up against the wall in a communal peeing session. No doubt if I had explored further in the increasingly Croydon-like Clapham on the way home, rather than merely catching a bus, I would have seen similar scenes. They were a bit of fun, not necessary but lightly amusing and adding a little to the colour and character.
And, finally, the singing. This was must-see for me partly because of the presence in the cast of Gerald Finley my favourite baritone (and I regret even more that my May diary is so packed I cannot fit in more than one attendance). But I had to remind myself that it is overwhelmingly a tenor's opera. I had heard of, but knew nothing about the Grimes, Stuart Skelton. I think an indication of how much he impressed me was that I actually quite forgot that Gerald Finley was due to appear until he did!
He was superb. Not especially a pretty voice, but just about right for the part. A strong stage presence, a convincing portrayal of the character and great singing. Amusingly, his physique is not dissimilar to Bryn's (although not as tall and somewhat slimmer), and his sailor's outfit was very similar to that worn by Bryn in Dutchman.
I was less convinced by Amanda Roocroft as Ellen Orford. I am sure that many people would have found her performance satisfactory. I didn't find it bad. No need to wince or cover my ears, but I did find her vocal performance to be lacking. Sometimes wayward of pitch, and very little emotion or character conveyed by the voice. A few ugly notes and I don't recall any phrases that made me sit up. Physically, she did enough, but it was not a memorable stage performance.
There was strength in the smaller character parts. Special praise to schoolboy Benny Gur in the non-singing role as the apprentice.
I really liked the performances of the nieces, Gillain Ramm and Mairéad Buckle, although their being dressed in school uniform and carrying dolls did disturb me (as I am sure it was meant to). I liked their dancing as much as their singing, and the sense that they were almost 'Siamese Twins' that they were just another two replaceable young women being exploited by The Borough. Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene was outstanding; Michael Colvin as Bob Boles and Felicity Palmer as a Miss Marple-ish Mrs Sedley were also notable. And no weak links among the rest.
Particularly impressive were the chorus. I often feel that ENO's chorus has better collective acting ability than singing, but this was not the case last night. I could nit-pick, remark about occasions where they did not close their consonants together, but that shouldn't detract from what was often a wall of sound resounding round the Coliseum, stirring stuff, goose-pimples, arm hairs standing up etc.
As you should know by now, I am very much a fan of Gerald Finley. I'm sure I would have booked for this without his presence; knowing he was in it was an added bonus.
Very difficult to know what to say. He was faultless. A low key portrayal of the character. Rightly so, I think, because Balstrode is a rarity, a non-grotesque balanced human being. I was not quite sure why he was cast as a one armed sailor, but it didn't do any harm.
There was one bit where the stage was completely crowded with all principals, chorus, extra chorus and actors (at the end of the beach scene, I think) and he dominated that crowd scene. Not by anything overt but by something, I don't know what - presence, I guess.
As for his voice, it's just one perfect column of honeyed gorgeousness (except when he was singing in a falsetto-ish parody, which was cool, too!). He is the most perfect opera singer around (and that is not meant to diminish my most favourite singer, because part of his appeal is the apparent anguish and suffering for his art!)
I know from conversations held and overheard that my opinions are by no means universally heard. It was my first experience of seeing this work live, although I have seen at least two different versions on DVD. I am also conscious that however objective one tries to be in a review, it is difficult not to be affected by extraneous factors including one's state of mind, physical wellness and alertness, and the behaviour of one's immediate neighbours.
One next to me decided to spend most of the interlude beginning Act II rummaging in her handbag, for her binoculars, which she handed to her companion saying 'Do you want to see? I'm so short-sighted you know,' while the music was playing; the chap in front of her spent most of the time leaning forward obscuring my view of the front right of stage where Gerald Finley spent a disproportionate amount of the performance; then he had the nerve to moan about a mobile phone going off, which I didn't hear.
On the whole, the audience was well-behaved. Coughing and sneezing much subdued - yay for swinefever hysteria, see it's not so difficult to stifle them in a tissue or one's sleeve. Apart from one wanker who decided to loudly lead a burst of applause as the curtain fell at the end of Scene 1 (of Act II, IIRC) but was quickly shushed, the audience more or less respected the music, waiting until the music faded away and after the curtain fell until the house lights were half-illuminated before beginning the applause. To do otherwise (eg applaud as the singing finishes, or the curtain begins to close) is sheer ignorance.
I have set up a Diigo tag for Peter Grimes. It is barely populated now but I'm sure will fill out tomorrow and throughout May. No doubt photos too will emerge from a very visual production. A plea to SkyArts - any chance of recording it for televising or DVD?