Peter Grimes – An opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough [sung in English with surtitles]
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Susan Gritton
Captain Balstrode – Peter Coleman-Wright
Auntie – Catherine Carby
First niece – Lorina Gore
Second niece –Taryn Fiebig
Bob Boles – David Corcoran
Swallow – Richard Anderson
Mrs Sedley – Elizabeth Campbell
Reverend Horace Adams – Kanen Breen
Ned Keene – Andrew Moran
Hobson – Jud Arthur
Boy – Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke
Dr Crabbe – Peter Carroll [additional acted role]
Opera Australia Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Neil Armfield – Director
Ralph Myers – Set designer
Tess Schofield – Costume designer
Damien Cooper – Lighting design
Denni Sayers – Choreographer
Michael Black – Chorus master
Bianca Esther – Stage Manager
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 15 October, 2009
Venue: Sydney Opera House, Australia
This was the first night of Opera Australia’s new production of “Peter Grimes”, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, West Australian Opera and Perth International Arts Festival. English conductor Mark Wigglesworth was enlisted by the company following the untimely death less than a year ago of its Music Director, Richard Hickox, who was originally to have led these performances. Stuart Skelton, a Sydney native, sang the title role, coming to this production following his acclaimed portrayal of Grimes with English National Opera in London this May. English soprano Susan Gritton made her Opera Australia debut as Ellen Orford, and Australian baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, an Opera Australia veteran, was Captain Balstrode.
Wigglesworth led the company through an outstanding performance of Britten’s score, varying tempos and moods appropriately to reflect the beauty and power of nature as well as the dramatic tensions, gentle tenderness and rollicking humour of human relationships. All of the principals, but especially those portraying the central characters of the drama – Grimes, Orford and Balstrode – were outstanding, not only vocally but also in their characterisations of the denizens of the Borough.
“Peter Grimes” was composed by the 32-year-old Benjamin Britten on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whilst Britten was living in self-imposed exile as a Conscientious Objector in the United States during World War Two. Britten and tenor Peter Pears, his life-partner, developed the scenario of the opera, based on George Crabbe’s extended poem, “The Borough”, during a sea-crossing back to England in 1942. Montagu Slater was engaged to write the libretto, and Britten completed the score in February 1945. The first performance – with Pears in the title role – was at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on 7 June 1945, the war having forced a delay of the American premiere until the following year, when it was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, the Boston Symphony’s summer home. Productions soon followed at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, firmly establishing Britten’s reputation as a major composer.
Crabbe’s poem, written in epistolary form, tells of the lives of the inhabitants of an English fishing village based on Aldeburgh, Crabbe’s (and later Britten’s) home-town. Slater’s libretto made the apprentice-abusing fisherman Peter Grimes (a minor character in the poem) more sympathetic than Crabbe’s sadistic villain, portraying him as a victim of ostracism by the vicious villagers, a misfit who, although rough with his apprentices, is neither murderer nor pederast. But there is no single ‘correct’ characterisation of this most crucial role, owing to the ambiguities introduced by Britten, Pears and Slater in adapting Crabbe’s poem to create the libretto. Noteworthy characterisations of Grimes have ranged from the maladjusted victim of societal oppression performed by Pears to the much darker character created by Jon Vickers.
Skelton’s Grimes is neither Crabbe’s sadistic villain nor the neurotic victim suggested by Slater and performed by Pears. Skelton’s interpretation in this production emphasises rather dark personality traits, but with a strong suggestion that mental instability is a major cause of Peter’s inability to cope with the very society whose approbation he so desperately desires, or to accept the wise counsel of Ellen and Balstrode, the only villagers who make serious efforts to help him.
Although Grimes comes across as truthful in his testimony in the Prologue, and sincere in his unrealistic aspirations for future happiness, expressed beautifully in his aria ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’, Skelton portrays him from the very outset of the opera as beset by uncontrollable anger. In the Prologue he pounds the table and rails at Swallow, who had just exonerated him from culpability for the death of his previous apprentice. He turns his duet with Balstrode in Act One into a shouting match, and his abusive treatment of his apprentice is completely unprovoked. At several dramatic moments, including the storm in Act One, the scene in Grimes’s hut in Act Two, and the ‘mad scene’ in Act Three, Skelton gestured with hands to head to show that Grimes was beset by unbearable thoughts. Even his (not very effectively executed) striking of Ellen in one of the opera’s pivotal scenes did not feel like a significant departure from Grimes’s prior demeanour, which deprived the moment of much of its emotional impact.
Skelton was in excellent voice throughout this difficult role. In the gentle arias ‘What harbour shelters peace?’ and ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ he generated a sense of calm that contrasted sharply with his dramatic outbursts throughout the opera, such as his cry of ‘God have mercy upon me!’ after striking Ellen in Act Two. He also had plenty of voice left for the demanding ‘mad scene’ in the final act.
Gritton was marvellous as Ellen Orford, particularly in her scenes with Grimes’s apprentice, in which her warmth and tenderness were evident. Her duets with Skelton were powerful and emotionally charged, and her singing in the female quartet in Act Two and in her meditative third-act aria, ‘Embroidery in childhood was a luxury of idleness’, was exemplary. Peter Coleman-Wright made a fine Balstrode, striving to bring common sense and rationality to the Borough, including his futile efforts to steer Grimes away from his tragic course, but ultimately pointing him toward his suicidal end. His strong voice and dramatic presence pervaded the entire opera.
The other principals also gave first-rate performances. Andrew Moran was a charming and funny Ned Keene, and Elizabeth Campbell a persistent and amusing Mrs Sedley. Catherine Carby as ‘Auntie’, proprietor of “The Boar”, and Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig as her ‘nieces’ provided consistent humour, but also sang with feeling in their quartet with Gritton as Ellen. Bass Richard Anderson was fine as the pompous lawyer Swallow, introducing the villagers in the expository Prologue, and later spouting legal terminology whilst pursuing the nieces, only to be humiliated by them.
New Zealand native Jud Arthur was a rich-voiced Hobson, the carter who brings Grimes’s new apprentice through the storm, provides the drum-beat as the villagers’ set out to confront Grimes, and later organises their final search for him. Tenor David Corcoran as the preachy Methodist Bob Boles stirred up the villagers most effectively, and Kanen Breen sang the part of Horace Adams in a clear and pleasant tenor voice, adding some amusing physical comedy in the final Act. Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke gave a well-acted performance in the important, albeit silent, role of John, Grimes’s ill-fated young apprentice.
The villagers, whose hostility to Grimes is unrelenting, play a crucial role in the opera. They either ignore him, as when Grimes asks for help in landing his boat, or are quick to take the law into their own hands when he is suspected of abusing or killing his apprentice. The Opera Australia Chorus sang superbly when praying to be spared by the storm tide, in the rollicking round ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ as the storm raged, and at several junctures when they transformed from distinct individuals into a howling mob, pursuing Grimes to the accompaniment of Hobson’s drum-beat. The eerie atmosphere created by their repeated off-stage repetitions of Grimes’s name merged seamlessly with Grimes’s concluding ‘mad scene’.
Britten’s brilliant score embodies much of the flavour of the opera in the orchestral ‘Sea Interludes’. At a recent symposium, Wigglesworth described the interludes that begin each of the three acts – dawn on the beach, Sunday morning church bells, and a moonlit seascape – as depicting the real world. He regards the mid-act interludes as “more psychologically based” – the storm interlude in the first act thus referring more to “the storm inside Grimes’s head rather than anything meteorological”. Wigglesworth finds strong psychological elements in all of the interludes, however, with the depiction in the first one of a lonely bird and of waves lapping up onto the beach respectively suggesting Grimes’s loneliness and how nothing really changes with the passage of time – the latter idea also being embodied in the unchanging bass line of the Passacaglia interlude in the middle of Act Two.
The staging of this production is consistent with the libretto’s specification that it is set “Towards 1830” – except for Tess Schofield’s costume designs, which reflect the 1940s, when the opera was composed. Although one might expect this to make certain aspects of the opera feel anachronistic – the use of a “workhouse brat” as an apprentice, for example – this was never the case. Schofield’s costumes are quite attractive and effective, serving to reflect the occupation and social standing of each of the principals, and also giving a distinct identity to each of the individual villagers.
Director Neil Armfield and set designer Ralph Myers set the action of the entire opera in a single physical space that is quite recognisable to Australians as a typical small-town meeting hall. This locale was inspired, at least in part, by the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, which played a significant role in Britten’s life there following his return from America.
There are three pairs of doors on each side of the hall, with those on one side opening to the (unseen) beach. At the rear of the hall is a raised stage, with curtains that can be opened and closed, and with a door in its far wall. Through rearrangement of tables and chairs and the use of simple props, however, the space is quite effectively transformed into the various interior locales in which the opera’s action is set – the Moot Hall, “The Boar”, and Grimes’s hut. At the beginning of Act One and the conclusion of Act Three, a profusion of nets, ropes and other maritime paraphernalia turn the stage into the seaside of a bustling fishing port, but other exterior locations are more simply suggested, a seaside bench, for example, being nothing more than a few chairs set alongside one another. The simplicity of the set design was paralleled by Damien Cooper’s simple and effective lighting design, which never seemed to upstage other aspects of the production.
The one exception to the simplicity of the means by which the stage was transformed from one locale to another came during the Passacaglia, when, in dim light, the rear wall of the meeting hall began to move forward – a startling and highly effective moment – almost to the proscenium; its curtains then were drawn apart so the relatively confined space of the meeting-hall stage could become Grimes’s hut for the concluding scene of Act Two.
Armfield’s staging of the crucial action in that scene was one of several significant departures from the libretto’s highly specific stage directions. The landslide caused by the recent storm created a treacherous 40-foot drop from the rear door of Grimes’s hut to the seashore below, so Grimes warns young John, “Careful, or you’ll break your neck. Down the cliff-side to the deck.” The libretto specifies that as Peter turns in response to the villagers’ knock at his hut’s front door “the boy climbs out. When Peter is between the two doors the boy screams and falls out of sight.” In Armfield’s staging, however, Grimes places a rope loop around the child’s body, passes it over a ceiling-mounted pulley and gradually plays out the rope to lower him down, but Grimes inadvertently releases the rope when he is startled by the knock at the door. This staging raises profoundly different issues than does the libretto regarding Grimes’s character and his responsibility for the boy’s death. It also places the approaching villagers’ harassment of Grimes more squarely in the chain of causation of that death, the tragic nature of which was touchingly emphasised by the return (in inversion) on the solo viola of that instrument’s theme representing the boy’s plight from the Passacaglia interlude heard a few minutes earlier.
The most significant – and most objectionable – departures from the libretto came as a result of Armfield’s expansion of the minor, non-speaking role of Dr Crabbe, a citizen of the Borough (and the author of the poem on which the opera is based), into an omnipresent character who interacts repeatedly with the other characters, more in his capacity as author than as the Borough’s physician (which is how he is treated in Slater’s libretto). This unnecessary addition, performed by the prominent Australian actor Peter Carroll, quickly became tiresome, distracting and intrusive.
Armfield had Dr Crabbe escort Grimes into the Moot Hall for the coroner’s inquest even before the music began, and then placed him in front of the proscenium at the audience’s right next to a small table with a desk-lamp and book, much as a stage director might use to follow the script of a play in rehearsal. From that vantage point, Crabbe would rise and stare at or gesture to other characters at dramatic moments in the action, but the effect of this was most often to distract from, rather than heighten, the drama. Wigglesworth stated at the pre-production symposium that he did not want the orchestral Interludes to be concert pieces rather than integral parts of the drama, but that goal was not really advanced by keeping Crabbe visible during the interludes, often merely functioning as a stage-hand. For example, he spent nearly the entire duration of the Passacaglia clearing chairs from around the stage and stacking them at one side in order to clear a path for the set to move forward and become Grimes’s hut. Britten’s brilliant music could have been better appreciated without such distractions.
Armfield also had the doctor interact with Grimes at two dramatic moments when he was clearly meant to be alone. When Grimes, soliloquising in his hut, ‘sees’ the dead William Spode (his previous apprentice), Crabbe, from outside the hut, acts as if he were the dead boy, approaching and exchanging glances with Peter at close quarters, as if the exterior wall of the hut did not exist. There is no reason to lend even this slight air of reality to a clearly delusional moment, much less to involve Crabbe.
Later, by placing Crabbe, Ellen, Balstrode and several other villagers together during the ‘mad scene’, Armfield ignored the libretto’s instruction that Grimes appears on a “quite empty”, fog-shrouded stage, and that the demented Grimes ignore Ellen when she and Balstrode find him. It was even more questionable to have Crabbe approach and embrace Grimes toward the conclusion of the ‘mad scene’. The doctor could hardly have ethically abandoned the mad Grimes to his ultimate suicidal fate, although that seemed to Balstrode the most merciful way to bring matters to a conclusion.
Notwithstanding these cavils, this is a superb production, both musically and dramatically, and the first-night audience enthusiastically applauded both the performers and the production team.