BRITTEN (1913-1976) Peter Grimes(1945)
Ventris: (Peter Grimes); Emily Magee: (Ellen Orford);
Alfred Muff: (Captain Balstroide); Liliana Nikiteanu
(Auntie); Dandra Trattnigg and Liuba Chuchrova: (Nieces);
Rudolf Schasching: (Bob Boles); Richard Angas: (Swallow);
Cornelia Kallisch:(Mrs Smedley); Martin Zysset: (Rev
Adams); Cheyne Davidson: (Ned Keene); Valeriy Murga:
Chor des Opernhaus Zürich, Orchester der Opernhaus Zürich/Franz
David Pountney, director; Felix Breisach, film director.
rec. December 2005, Zürich EMI CLASSICS
Britten may, in this country, be thought of as quintessentially
English, but his music enjoys great success in continental
Europe. In March 2008 alone two separate productions of Peter
Grimes open in Germany, with another scheduled for June.
This Peter Grimes from Zürich shows that Britten works
well with a cast not brought up on Britten since infancy.
said, there’s precious little “feel” of the sea in this production.
While the sea figures strongly in the score, it exists to
extend the psychological mood in the plot. Instead, this
production brings out a more subtle aspect of the opera,
namely the sense of land-locked claustrophobia. The people
of this Borough are trapped in an oppressive set that towers
over them. There’s no escape for them, just as there’s no
escape for Grimes except through death. Maritime Suffolk
this isn’t but it’s valid enough as a metaphor for what’s
happening in the opera. In a way, this is a good thing because
it focuses attention on the performances rather than their
this is good, for this Peter Grimes is Christopher Ventris,
one of the finest heroic tenors active today. He has such
stage presence he seems to fill the screen. If anything this
might be a fault, as Grimes isn’t supposed to be attractive.
On the other hand it makes Ellen Orford’s fascination with
him quite believable. The relationship between Grimes and
Ellen is important because it’s Grimes’s only chance of escape.
There’s something boyish about Ventris, too, which fits the
role, because Grimes, himself, must once have been an abused
apprentice. Cruel as he may be, it’s the only way he knows
how to behave. There are books in his hovel and it’s neatly
kept. No wonder Ellen intuits something in him that’s worth
saving. Once Ventris starts to sing, however, he totally
inhabits the part. His “I’ve seen in the stars” aria is exquisitely
moving. This is a hugely demanding role, demanding great
emotional and vocal range. Ventris exudes animal energy,
again drawing out an aspect of Grimes’s personality. He works
on a Sunday because he’s driven by forces he can’t quite
understand. “This relentless work!”, sings Ellen. But Grimes
is doing it because there’s no other way he can find redemption.
A pity then, that in the final scene, Ventris has to carry
a mast with horizontal extensions. clearly a reference to
Christ on Calvary. But Grimes isn’t supposed to be Christ-like.
He may be persecuted but he’s nobody’s saviour. He’s flawed.
That’s what makes him human.
Magee’s Ellen Orford is vocally lustrous. If she’s costumed
to look frumpy, and older than Ventris, that again is no
fault, but accentuates her motherly qualities. Her singing
is fluid, making the most of the way Britten has written
the part to contrast with the other female roles. She’s a
dreamer, as she reveals when she sings about what embroidery
meant to her as a child. Yet Britten also writes a certain
gruff tenderness into Auntie, too. Auntie might have been
an Ellen had she not, like Grimes, grown up tough and defensive.
Less successful in this production is the portrayal of the
nieces, who come over as cynical and hard-bitten. Perhaps
they are, since they participate willingly. But the Opera
North production by Phyllida Lloyd, depicted them as little
more than children, a parallel to the boys sent from the
workhouse to be abused and worked to death. For Britten,
despoiled innocence is such a recurrent theme that Pountney’s
approach is a lost opportunity. Children matter to Britten,
which is why they turn up in so much of his work. In some
ways, he himself lived in a kind of arrested boyhood.
this film ends with a close-up of one of the nieces, sneering
cynically at the camera, I don’t know. Is this supposed to
indicate that it’s impossible to escape the degradation of
life in this uncharming Borough? Britten’s music tells us
something else. Throughout the opera, he stresses the hardship
of being in a community struggling against the elements.
They are trapped in a cycle of incessant work, dictated by
nature. If there are shoals at sea, the men go out in their
boats, even on Sunday. Even in the pub, they don’t relax.
Pountney has them busily working away, knitting (like Ellen),
mending nets, whittling and so on. In the final scene, the
townsfolk sing “Cold begins another day”.. For a moment,
time seems suspended as the woodwinds play their magical
refrain. The orchestra depicts the sea, “in ceaseless motion”,
rolling and ebbing, “terrible and deep”. For a moment woodwinds
create a magical glow, but the strings express how the cycle
of nature rolls on as relentlessly as the waves. The music
may stop, like Grimes’s life, but the opera doesn’t “end” any
more than Nature ends.
from Ventris, Magee and Nikiteanu, this production works
best in the ensemble scenes, which are carefully so carefully
choreographed that odd lapses of diction don’t distract.
Pountney captures the mob hysteria well, and the procession
is sung with great fervour. A pity, then, that the townsfolk
are shown each carrying a little red book aloft. Of course
it’s supposed to be a hymnal, and it demonstrates their sanctimonious
conformity. On the other hand it evokes images of Red Guards
and Maoism. This may be a valid comment, but the idea isn’t
otherwise integrated into the production, and doesn’t work.
too, this is good, for Welser-Möst keeps the texture clear
and sparkling. Because the plot is morally ambiguous, it
matters all the more that the playing is clear and lucid.
The Interludes are well played. Wisely, the film director
shows the orchestra playing, without adornment. This isn’t
a bad Peter Grimes, and is worth hearing if only for
Ventris’s excellent performance. But the production would
have been infinitely better had it been more attuned to Britten’s
inner world, where childhood, nature and fragility symbolize
so much. In 1945, Britten’s ideas on child abuse and the
hypocrisy of society had to be somewhat muted. Today, however,
we unfortunately cannot escape confronting the darker side
to the world of Peter Grimes. This is a good enough
production and quite musically satisfying. But if we really
want to know more about Britten and his complex emotional
and musical ideas, we’d get far more from a film of the Opera
North/Phyllida Lloyd production, which is infinitely more
perceptive, and genuinely captures the essence of Britten’s
the DVD spells “nieces” wrong and also calls Emily Magee “Emely”.
Thank goodness I’m not the only one who does typos!
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