As Brittens first opera, it is simply astonishing, and whilst his first full-length theatre piece the American operetta Paul Bunyan can now be appreciated as a remarkable achievement in its own right, Brittens unerring theatrical instinct is revealed for the first time in Peter Grimes. Many have come to regard Grimes as Brittens operatic masterpiece including the conductor of the first performance, Reginald Goodall, whose name was notable for its absence from otherwise informative and unusually interesting programme notes.
Sir Colin Davis conducted at times as if possessed. Many of the climaxes were simply staggering in their impact, and orchestra and singers alike were galvanised into giving a performance of an intensity that was almost unbearable at times. The big lynching scenes of Acts Two and Three, with the crowd all but baying for blood were quite terrifying. In the concert hall, and without visual distractions, one can appreciate the skill of Brittens orchestral writing. Time and again a detail, or a sonority, which can pass by in the theatre, made its impression. Particularly noteworthy was Brittens use of the lower strings, apparent almost from the start, creating a warm surround around the figure of Grimes. In fact, in spite of biting brass and howling high woodwinds, one noticed what a dark score this is, almost baleful, at times, in character.
How striking this must have seemed at Sadlers Wells in 1945 and how skilfully Davis captured the drama, with no hint of routine in a work he has conducted many times. The urgency of Daviss current interpretation was offset by the moments of repose such as the womens quartet in Act Two, which was achingly poignant, with phrases caressingly played by limpid flutes, and an unusual blend from the singers.
The Sea Interludes were not made to stand out in any inappropriate way; rather, they were integral to the drama, as the composer intended. The ferocity of the Storm with elemental timpani rightly dominating (the part is marked solo in the score) was carried on into the final scene of the first act, and seemed to be aiming towards the terrifying final phrase of Home! Do you call that home? as Grimes leads away his just-fetched apprentice, which left one breathless.
One of the commendable features of Daviss conducting was that the opera did not seem as broken-up as it sometimes can. After all, for all its startling qualities, Britten did write, essentially, a traditional numbers opera. Davis ensured that there was no hiatus at any point, and the drama consequently moved on relentlessly.
A strong cast was headed by the sympathetic characterisation of Peter Grimes by Glenn Winslade. He did not have the sheer animal-like quality of Jon Vickers, who was so memorable in the role, often under Colin Davis at Covent Garden a partnership preserved on CD and DVD nor the more purely poetic streak of Peter Pears. Instead, Winslade gave the impression of a man who was simply out of place in the world he finds himself in. His strong tenor had all the flexibility the part demands, if not, at times, the sheer heft that Vickers was able to command. But in Winslades reflective singing in Act Two, when he dreams of the life he would like to have, one sensed that this Grimes had already realised that his dreams were futile. Winslades delivery of the wishful thought and a womans care was heartbreaking.
One felt from the start that Grimes was doomed, and that the descent into madness was inevitable. In that scene, Winslade impressed by not going overboard (no pun intended). Indeed, his inner quality and comparative restraint was affecting. But here there was a problem in that the chorus although with their backs to the audience was simply not distant enough. These voices should not be as present as they were on this occasion.
Janice Watson made Ellen Orford a more forthright character than can sometimes be the case. She was positively defiant in her Act One admonition to the crowd Let her among you without fault cast the first stone, and her aria Embroidery in childhood was plangently sung, with Ellen finally realising the hopelessness of the situation. Throughout the opera, she was a positive force of reason, not just Grimess passive accomplice. Auntie, too, was an affirmative and authoritative figure, as portrayed by the excellent Jill Grove, who, thankfully, eschewed caricature in favour of firm delivery of Brittens lines, and was all the more effective for it.
Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan were suitably flighty and flirty as the Nieces, but sombre in the Act Two quartet, with Matthews producing a ravishing top D-flat at its close, apparently effortlessly. Mrs Sedley who, in essence, is the villain of the piece in that she sends the mob on its way for a final hounding of Grimes, was appropriately characterised by Catherine Wyn-Rogers. This womans bitterness and insatiable thirst for gossip came over strongly, but a rare moment of humour caused a laugh with her poker-faced delivery of the line Ive never been in a pub in my life!.
Ryland Davies was graceful as the well-meaning but ineffectual Rector, although he missed an entry in his Act Three song to the roses, and Nathan Gunn was a firm-voiced Ned Keene. James Rutherfords Swallow was commanding in the Prologue if, perhaps, rather more youthful in tone than is ideal, whilst Jonathan Lemalus Hobson (and Daviss tempo) caught the lurching quality of I have to go from pub to pub perfectly.
Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode grew in strength as the performance progressed. Whilst sympathetic, he did not quite have the gravitas of an older and wiser sea-captain, able to dominate some of the ensembles, but his is a warm, congenial baritone, always a pleasure to hear.
The only really weak-link in this cast was the Bob Boles of Christopher Gillett. I may have been at a disadvantage, since I was diagonally opposite to him, but even so one could sense that he was struggling to project the vehemence that this character requires, and his once attractive tenor seemed to be distressingly thin. This was a pity, as Boless presence is crucial at certain points in the opera, and, as a consequence, these moments did not have their full impact.
The singing of the London Symphony Chorus was just superb all credit to chorus master Joseph Cullen; diction was unimpeachable and, in full cry, roof-raising.
The LSO was in tremendous form all sections doing justice to themselves and the score. But credit must ultimately go to Colin Davis, for welding his forces into producing as convincing a performance of Brittens opera as one is likely to be fortunate enough to encounter today. There were difficulties of balance and ensemble with the offstage music at the start of the second and third acts, but it would be churlish to make too much of these, and other comparative deficiencies, in the face of such overall excellence.
It is good news indeed that LSO Live will release a recording of Peter Grimes in due course. In the meantime, a visit to the Barbican on 12 January is most urgently recommended, as is the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 January.
- Concert repeated on 12 January at 7.00, and in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York on 18 January