Monday, 1 June 2009

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

No, it’s not a book, but it is definitely twentieth century and worth writing about. I was lucky enough to see the last performance of the current ENO production of Peter Grimes on Saturday. I didn’t know the piece at all, but was intrigued enough by Alex Ross’s chapter on the opera and Britten in The Rest is Noise to ask for tickets as a birthday present. I’m enormously glad that I did, because it was the best production of an opera that I have ever seen.

Director David Alden sets the opera in post-war austerity Britain; clothes are drab and grey and uniform, literally in a few cases, and the sets are austere, apparently made from cheap materials like corrugated iron. The lighting is remarkable, making expressionistic shadowplay that sometimes emphasises and sometimes subverts the action; Ellen Orford’s shadow, for example, sometimes dominates those of the chiding townspeople, while at the very end she has no shadow at all. The faces of the chorus gleam out from grey hats and coats like the glitter of the sea or of a shoal of mackerel, and sometimes they drift in and out of the stage like waves. While Mrs Sedley rouses the mob that will drive Peter Grimes to his death, they are constrained by the set in a wedge of stage, and sway and roll like a rough sea, equating the mob with other unstoppable forces of nature.

The austerity setting gave the opera an extra twist; after years of pulling together as part of the war effort, the tensions between the individual and the collective may now be at such a pitch that rupture and trauma are inevitable. This version of the opera is sympathetic to Grimes, while not masking the violent and aggressive aspects of his character; there is genuine regret and emotion as he recounts the death of his first apprentice, and John’s death is clearly indicated as an accident, caused in part by Grimes’s fright at being persecuted by the Borough. The choral repetition of “he who despises us we’ll destroy” emphasises that Grimes’s separation from his community is his crime, rather than his involvement in the death of two children. The portrayal of Auntie as a lesbian of the Radclyffe Hall type, in a rather elegant pinstriped man’s suit, problematises this. One critic suggests that her wardrobe may be due to her role as a businesswoman in a man’s world, but her rejection of one woman, and leading of another off on a lead, during the dance scene suggest to me that she’s not just coded as lesbian. A lesbian can be as antithetical to small-town life as an uppity fisherman, but Auntie is not harried to her suicide.

Perhaps this is because she knows where the bodies are buried. Auntie’s nieces, dressed most of the time in identical schoolgirl uniform, moving in a disturbed and disturbing robotic way, are harassed and assaulted by Swallow, although their status as prostitutes (which I understand is the usual interpretation) is unclear. But Auntie the innkeeper sees and knows the licentious behaviour of otherwise respectable townspeople; she helps to focus the hypocrisy of those who judge Grimes, as does the girlishness of the nieces, who can be equated with the young and vulnerable apprentice. If Grimes is an exploiter of children, he is not the only one in the Borough. Auntie is a fascinating counterpart to Grimes: both are complicit and stigmatised, but she is more powerful because of her inside knowledge and her ability to accept the townspeople.

Other commentators have seen the Ellen of this production as not caring particularly for Grimes, over-ready to reject him when she suspects he has beaten John, and suggest that this emphasises her own complicity in the eventual tragedy. I didn’t read it like this – and indeed thought she was remarkably sympathetic to Peter after he clouted her – but this idea gives another twist to her grief in the final moments. Is she crying for Grimes, or because of her own guilt and its implications for her future in the Borough? I thought the former at the time, and found Amanda Roocroft's performance very moving, but now I wonder ...

So – a hugely fascinating and thought-provoking opera. I’m not enough of an expert to criticise the singing, but I will say that I thought the choral work was excellent, although I was pleased to notice that even the ENO chorus has the same problems sounding a simultaneous final “s” as any other choir. Gerald Finley as Balstrode was particularly fine, and I feel very guilty for having failed to spot from the upper circle that he was playing the part as an amputee, with one arm strapped down. I did wonder why he always had his overcoat thrown over his shoulders. The orchestra seemed utterly marvellous to me and, judging by the applause, to the rest of the audience. The piece was recorded for broadcast on Radio 3, so those not lucky enough to make one of the nine performances can enjoy at least part of the experience.

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