Peter Grimes – Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough [sung in English with subtitles available in English, French, German, Korean and Japanese]
Peter Grimes – John Graham-Hall
Ellen Orford – Susan Gritton
Balstrode – Christopher Purves
Auntie – Felicity Palmer
First Niece – Ida Falk Winland
Second Niece – Simona Mihai
Bob Boles – Peter Hoare
Swallow – Daniel Okulitch
Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Rev. Horace Adams – Christopher Gillett
Ned Keene – George von Bergen
Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Boy – Francesco Malvuccio
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
Richard Jones – Director
Stewart Laing – Set & Costume Designer
Mimi Jordan Sherin – Lighting Designer
Sarah Fahie – Movement
Recorded in May 2012 at Teatro alla Scala Milano
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: August 2013
CD No: OPUS ARTE
OA 1103 D [DVD]
Duration: 2 hours 34 minutes [opera)]
14 minutes [extra features]
Richard Jones is a bundle of contradictions. At his best there’s no one to touch him as an opera director; at other times you wonder why he got out of bed in the morning. He came of age as an enfant terrible with the Royal Opera’s notorious Ring cycle of the mid-1990s – the one that pitted him memorably (and in some ways catastrophically) against Bernard Haitink – since when he has proceeded to cook up the blissful and the dismal in equal measure. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s the same with his theatre work: I ran screaming (well, almost) from his witless version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, yet left the Young Vic on air after his revelatory interpretation of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan.
Still it goes on. It beggars belief that the fecund mind responsible for Il trittico (Royal Opera), The Tales of Hoffmann (ENO) and Falstaff (Glyndebourne) could also hatch this Peter Grimes. On top of the (over-)familiar Jones tropes of stuffed birds and hideous colour schemes we have a two-tier production where the principals act their socks off but dead-eyed chorus members perambulate like zombies. Word has it that Jones did not find the La Scala choristers easy to work with. That may be the case; but some of his solutions, which include placing sedentary ranks of singers downstage of the action in a kind of car-park-and-bark, raise the white flag of semi-staging.
The late-twentieth-century setting is both alienating in its ugliness and perplexing in its lack of relevance. Temporal relocations are all very well provided they have something to say both about the work and the time – as was the case with Jones’s recent 1953-ish Gloriana for the Royal Opera. But whither the coastal communities of 1980s’ Suffolk? Beyond an exodus to the cities and a burgeoning market in second homes, neither of which features here, they were an innocuous facet of British life. Rather, the era of the motor car makes a nonsense of Jim Hobson’s carting business and ensures that with a school-leaving age of 16 Grimes’s burly Apprentice looks more than capable of handling himself (except, alas, as an actor).
I realise that by emphasising the production over the performances I am courting the disapproval of readers who only visit these pages in search of musical appraisal; but with so many fine interpretations of Peter Grimes already available a further DVD needs to offer something special. This one doesn’t, except in one important respect of which more anon. Which is not to denigrate the fine work of the musicians – nor indeed the thrilling baton-wielding of Robin Ticciati, whose enthusiastic yet disciplined conducting earns him a standing ovation from a La Scala Orchestra that emerges as polished, urgent and surprisingly at ease with Britten’s score.
There is strength from first to last among the soloists, three of whom (Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett and Stephen Richardson) would go on to repeat their roles this year at the centenary staging of “Grimes on the (Aldeburgh) Beach”. Of the rest, George von Bergen, who invariably impresses, is a magnetic Ned Keene and Felicity Palmer a very human Auntie. The charismatic Peter Hoare cannot help but bring the Bible-thumping Bob Boles to prominence, although, surprisingly, Christopher Purves invests Captain Balstrode with less character and colour than one might expect from such a redoubtable stage animal. As for the ever-hopeful Ellen Orford, she is rivetingly sung by Susan Gritton, dowdy and shock-wigged, in a dominant, forceful performance. She is given a neat curtain twist too.
As Grimes, John Graham-Hall is every bit as intense as he was in ENO’s recent revival of Britten’s Death in Venice. He willingly forsakes beauty of tone for a total identification with his character, which is no mean achievement when he is obliged to interact with so faceless an Apprentice. Graham-Hall’s eyes alone tell a thousand stories and he projects the fisherman’s inner demons with such concentration that even the improbable poetry of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” convinces. He is a sailor with no sea (water is conspicuous by its absence from Stewart Laing’s designs) so the moment of scuppering – he exits through a moot hall window – may even be an existential act of departure.
Sarah Fahie’s movement work is heroic in the circumstances, and she manages to squeeze a decent jive sequence from the Chorus during the third-Act barn dance. As for the overall product, the sound quality is exemplary, the filming unfussy and clear, and at its heart is an immense central performance that offers, against the odds, a reason to invest in this frustrating yet hallucinatory DVD.