The Royal Opera – Peter Grimes [Heppner & Watson]

Peter Grimes – An opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”

Peter Grimes – Ben Heppner
Ellen Orford – Janice Watson
Captain Balstrode – Alan Opie
Ned Keene – Quentin Hayes
Mrs Sedley – Sarah Walker
Swallow – Matthew Best
Auntie – Anne Collins
Her ‘Nieces’ – Ailish Tynan & Helen Williams
Hobson – Jonathan Veira
The Rector – Brian Galliford
Bob Boles – Ian Caley
Dr Crabbe – Basil Patton

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Willy Decker – original director
François de Carpentries – revival director
John Macfarlane – designs
David Finn – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 July, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was first performed in 1945 at Sadler’s Wells and was immediately acknowledged as kick-starting the revival of opera in Britain, although its influence has not always been a beneficial one. Yet the frequency of its appearance on the European stage has tended to offset any insular tendencies that either the scenario, or Britten’s treatment of it, might have been expected to betray.

Thoughts much in mind given that this production was that of Willy Decker’s staging, first seen at La Monnaie in 1994 and revived for Covent Garden by François de Carpentries. From the Kafka-esque opposing of the single versus the many in the Prologue, it was clear this was a production firmly in the tradition of European expressionist theatre. Consolidating this were John Macfarlane’s designs – gaunt structures set at oblique angles, which enclose and emit people as though the instruments of tyrannical control – and David Finn’s lighting, emphasising and distorting character appearances with Nosferatu-like menace. Such an approach left no doubt as to the innate claustrophobia of the setting, cancelling out the merest hint of dissent as much by scenic oppression as by human machination.

But this is to overlook a crucial aspect of the opera: its grounding in an East Coast environment such that the music, and particularly the ‘Sea Interludes’ (often heard in the concert hall), personifies to an unmistakable and unavoidable degree. In other words, Peter Grimes is the modern naturalistic opera bar none, and any attempt to abstract its visual context is bound to diminish its theatrical impact.

Decker’s take is most apparent in the attire of the Borough, endowing them with an oppressive dourness which underscores the monochrome feel of the designs. Yet by reducing characterisation to the level of cipher, little opportunity remains for human interaction to motivate events on stage and articulate the expressive trajectory of the musical narrative. Decker seems to counter this with the theme envisaged for Grimes and Ellen Orford: lovers intended to be together yet destined to remain apart. This itself diminishes the character of Grimes, somewhere between mystic visionary and unstable loner, and straitjackets that of Orford, whose equivocal role does not readily admit of so defined an interpretation. The outcome is a staging played out at odds with the drama adumbrated by the music: a clash of aesthetics left unresolved, because irresolvable, at the close of the opera.

The cast assembled for this La Monnaie/Royal Opera co-production was a dependable one, often more so. Ben Heppner is an appealing Grimes – not the wild-eyed sea-dog portrayed by Jon Vickers or the tortured seer of Philip Langridge, yet as beautifully voiced as was Peter Pears in his heyday and more sympathetic in his persona. Such as the ecstatic lyricism of “What harbour shelters peace” and the variety of tone in his closing monologue denote characterisation of a high order. Despite the weight of misinterpretation she had to contend with, Janice Watson made Orford a compassionate woman whose inability to ‘turn round’ Grimes is as much owing to a realisation of her own limitations as those of the stifling community. Her lengthy questioning of the apprentice at the beginning of Act Two unfolded with a combination of calm and foreboding that most nearly approximates to a ‘fixing’ of character as can be expected.

Occasionally rough of tone, Alan Opie was commanding and dignified as Captain Balstrode – a paragon of common sense such as one feels would have forsaken the Borough years before. Other successes were the sharp-suited wide-boy of Ned Keene as portrayed by Quentin Hayes, the dignified Auntie of Anne Collins (rarely can this small but significant role have been so well sung), the finely observed hollowness behind authority of Matthew Best’s Swallow, and Jonathan Veira’s expedient Hobson: his beating of the drum tattoo as the deputation approached Grimes’s hut a potent theatrical touch. Sarah Walker gave a persuasive send-up of the shambling neurotic that is Mrs Sedley, with Ailish Tynan and Helen Williams frivolous yet poignant as the Nieces – combining superbly with Watson and Collins in the quartet midway through Act Two: the most prophetic passage of the work. A major factor in any production, the Royal Opera Chorus sang lustily and with discipline – beefing up those passages, notably “Grimes is at his exercise’”, which might have been transplanted from a Noël Coward revue.

Whether by accident or design, Antonio Pappano has conducted Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and now Peter Grimes over the last two seasons. Notable because these three operas run in a direct causal chain between the two world wars, provoking and intriguing with their likely influences on and reflections of each other. As previously, Pappano impressed with the quality of ensemble drawn from the Royal Opera Orchestra, and his attention to detail invested the interludes with authenticity such as the production seemed keen to eschew. The control of tension over the passacaglia-strewn progress of the second scene in Act Two, and ebb and flow of sonority in the Interlude that begins Act Three were confidently handled – though, as in those earlier productions, there is an expressive dimension with which Pappano’s too-often generalised approach to dramatic incident failed to connect with.

So, a curate’s egg as regards the overall presentation of this seminal stage-work. On a musical level, it is certainly worth catching, and the staging itself is rarely less than instructive. In the last resort, however, Peter Grimes is imbued with an indelible sense of place: that Decker should seek to impose radically different criteria is not in itself objectionable, but his conception ends up denying much of the dramatic essence which gives the opera its capacity to enthral, to fascinate and to move.

  • The performance reviewed above took place on 11 July; the first night was on 3 July
  • Remaining performance: July 16 at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Wozzeck
  • Lady Macbeth

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