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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)
Christopher 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: (Hobson)
Chor des Opernhaus Zürich, Orchester der Opernhaus Zürich/Franz Welser-Möst
David Pountney, director; Felix Breisach, film director.
rec. December 2005, Zürich
EMI CLASSICS 5009719 [150:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Benjamin 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.
That 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 surroundings.
Musically, 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.
Emily 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.
Why 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.
Apart 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.
Orchestrally, 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 idiom.
Incidentally, the DVD spells “nieces” wrong and also calls Emily Magee “Emely”. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who does typos!
Anne Ozorio
see also review by Tony Haywood


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