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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes
, op.33 (1945) [142:17]
Peter Pears (tenor) – Peter Grimes; Heather Harper (soprano) – Ellen Orford; Bryan Drake (baritone) – Captain Balstrode; Elizabeth Bainbridge (contralto) – Auntie; Ann Robson (mezzo) – Mrs. Sedley; Owen Brannigan (bass) – Swallow; Jill Gomez (soprano) – Niece 1; Anne Pashley (soprano) – Niece 2; Gregory Dempsey (tenor) – Bob Boles; Robert Tear (tenor) – Rev. Horace Adams; David Bowman (baritone) – Ned Keene; Michael Rippon (bass) - Hobson
Simon Laing and children from Leiston Modern School, Ambrosian Opera Chorus,
London Symphony Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Stage Director: Joan Cross
Video Director: Brian Large
rec Snape Maltings, 24-28 February 1969
NTSC 4:3 Colour Region Code 0 (worldwide). LPCM Mono, Enhanced Dolby Mono. Subtitles English, French, German, Spanish
DECCA 074 3261 [142:17]
Experience Classicsonline

This DVD is as close as we’ll ever get to seeing how the originators visualized Peter Grimes. It has Peter Pears in the title role he created and Britten conducting with the staging by Joan Cross, the original Ellen Orford. But it was made 24 years after the original and Owen Brannigan’s Swallow was the only other survivor from the first cast. And it’s a BBC recording for television presentation rather than an opera house staging, but in essence it still captures the way Britten wanted the opera to appear.

 Right from the Prologue inquest Pears’ Grimes comes across as an independent spirit with a dignity formed from hard circumstances and inner anguish which bursts out at ‘The case goes on in people’s minds’ (tr. 2 5:30, continuous timing). He is apart from the hubbub which is the townsfolk and token justice, Britten’s wry attitude to which is confirmed by his playful orchestration. What is more striking and natural to television is the intimacy of the duet between Peter and Ellen (tr.3), a contrast from the rigmarole of the Borough (Aldeburgh) townsfolk taking time to leave in close-up.

 Interlude 1, Dawn (tr. 4), like the other interludes, is pictured as designer David Myerscough-Jones states “a series of distant abstract images projected onto gauze, invoking an illusion of cloud and water without the use of realism”. This minimalist approach in effect offers some visual relief, enabling you to ponder awhile and concentrate on the sound. Britten’s here offers a less refined, but more spontaneous, sharper edged, vibrant nature than his 1958 audio recording.

 Saving the situation of collecting Grimes’ new apprentice, Heather Harper’s Ellen literally towers over the townsfolk with her ‘Let her among you without fault cast the first stone’ (tr. 7 22:04) as well as the musical descent from on high for this high moral ground. Yet this is a glimpse of her inner life, which we see in no other character except Grimes. As for his, there’s the poignant empathy of ‘alone with a childish death’ (tr. 8 30:23) where he recalls what happened to the first apprentice in the scene with Captain Balstrode. Bryan Drake as the Captain has a noble demeanour but loses authority, in being visibly younger than Grimes, 43 at the time of the recording. But the relatively old Grimes we have here, Pears at 58, gives him more of a sinister aspect. This is used to great effect when he suddenly appears out of the garish abstract colour changes in the Storm Interlude and fills the screen (tr. 9 36:02), equally when he enters the pub in the height of the storm (tr. 11 44:25), his turn to tower above the rest, monster like, so we experience a tremor of Mrs Sedley’s reaction of fainting. This is using television’s capability to advantage. The round ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ (48:55) goes with a swing, a rare kind of vocal interlude of happy community spirit crushed by the stark ‘Home! Do you call that home!’ (tr. 13 52:21) after Ellen motheringly reassures the apprentice ‘Peter will take you home’.

 Act 2 begins with an exultantly bright account of the Interlude Sunday Morning followed by the deceptive calm of Ellen’s singing to the apprentice her hopes and fears, summed up in ‘Storm and all its terrors are nothing to the heart’s despair’ (tr. 16 61:14). The turning point comes rapidly. The bruise on the boy’s neck is noticed. Ellen states the reality that even a successful Peter can’t buy peace from gossip, ‘Peter, we’ve failed!’ (67:25). He strikes her and proclaims an anti catechism to the church service ‘Amen’ just heard in the background, ‘So be it! And God have mercy upon me’ (67:49). This is all starkly, directly and graphically realized as is the quartet of the women, Ellen, publican Auntie and her two whore nieces, ‘Do we smile or do we weep’ (tr. 20 79:56). All bedraggled, they seem to step outside the immediate context and become eternal grieving women, desolate yet with the potential for radiance in  the stratospheric close from Ellen’s top C flat and for the First Niece, an ethereal top D flat from Jill Gomez. The only radiance Peter can find is a retreat to his elated vision, ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ (tr. 22 91:36), an idyll ideally suited to Pears’ lyricism and unforgettable in performance. But then he’s haunted by the former dead apprentice and obsessed with gaining wealth. In this production we see the boy trips up going down to the cliff (97:47). Who’s to blame?

 Act 3 finds the Borough folk tipsy but the ‘Goodnight’ ensemble (tr. 25 91:28), with the light comeliness and relative innocence of Robert Tear’s Reverend Horace Adams, is a happy phase of simple pleasures. Ellen’s embroidery aria (tr. 26 114:04) is her link to dreams and a happier life, also her epitaph for Grimes, poignantly rendered. The Borough folk are now out of control, Mrs Sedley leading them and stating the heart of the matter, ‘Him who despises us we’ll destroy’ (tr. 27 122:49), all tooled up for one man. Their ringing cries of ‘Peter Grimes’ (124:40) are perhaps the most abiding memory of the opera, or is it Peter’s ‘What harbour shelters peace’ (tr. 29 133:13) as he enters in a kind of elegiac delirium, already like a drowning man reviewing his life and thus the opera’s music. Pears is gripping and harrowing here. He recalls his love for Ellen at the same time as she appears and cradles him in her arms, but he doesn’t realize she’s there. He only makes eye contact with Balstrode who rouses him to tell him to sink his boat. Did he love Ellen or rather the security and respectability she represents? She is left grieving because of her love for him.

 I compared the Royal Opera Covent Garden DVD dated 1981 conducted by Colin Davis with Jon Vickers as Grimes (NVC Arts 0630-16913-2). Vickers is a more credible, formidable and challenging Grimes than Pears but less sympathetic. There’s more sense of mulling over things and a certain hesitation, conscience at times in Pears. Vickers is always in control, if sometimes by great effort. His performance is more projected, less intimate. Britten’s Prologue is faster, timing at 8:43 against Davis’ 9:52. Britten is more colloquial but his closing love duet is more lyrical. Heather Harper is Ellen for Davis too, but matching Vickers more strident, less warm. Similarly Vickers’ ‘What harbour shelters peace’ is more declaimed than the expressive smoothness of Pears (tr. 8 32:35). Pears confides the details of the boy’s death, Vickers protests them, though for Davis Norman Bailey is an authoritative Balstrode. Vickers’ entry from the storm is less dramatic than Pears but his ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, beginning in sotto voce raptness, is more magical and with greater dynamic contrast than Pears (tr. 11 45:09). Vickers’ entry into ‘Old Joe had gone fishing’ is more contrastedly tormented, where Pears takes on the general jocularity but strikingly speaks ‘We found Davy Jones’ (tr. 12 50:19) and applies parlando to ‘Bring him in with sorrow! Bring him in with terror!’. 

 Just as Britten’s Storm Interlude is wilder than Davis’s, so his Sunday Morning Interlude is more ecstatically hopeful. Harper’s Ellen beginning Act 2 is more open, expansive and fresher voiced for Britten, though her lower register is richer for Davis with a sepulchral ‘sleep, like oceans deep’. Davis’s ‘Do we smile or do we weep’ fills the expanse of the stage. The women are closer together for Britten and the quartet’s blend of desolation and hope is pointed more clearly in the swiftly juxtaposed major and minor keys. With Davis’s Passacaglia Interlude you’re aware of the structure, with Britten’s the emotional flux and varied mood, finally working up to a frenzy. Vickers’ ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ is soft, sotto voce, thereby with a more veiled, insubstantial quality than Pears’ smoother, more serene approach.

 Britten’s Moonlight Interlude is more emotive than Davis’s observed lapping of the waves, with more warmth at the opening and anguish at the climax. Britten’s pub dances have more lilt, the parody of the Landler clearer while Mrs Sedley states her suspicion of the boy’s murder to Ned Keene. Harper’s embroidery aria is more gravely etched for Davis, a more melting, flowing narrative for Britten. The mobilization of Britten’s Borough folk and their massed cries are more violent. Again there’s a more intense motion and climax to Britten’s account of Interlude 6, timing at 2:10 to Davis’s 2:49. In the final scene Vickers distraught is paradoxically at his most lyrical, especially at ‘Ellen, give me your hand’, but Pears’ softer, more pleading treatment of ‘Turn the skies back and begin again’ (tr. 29 129:22) is more affecting.

 Picture quality is good in this first DVD release of the BBC tape which boasts more, perhaps old-fashioned provincial, colour in costume than the Victorian probity of the Davis DVD. The mono sound is at a disadvantage in comparison with Davis, also with Britten’s 1958 stereo audio recording in terms of breadth and density, most notably in the big ensemble and chorus combinations, e.g. ‘Now the flood tide’ in Act 1 (tr. 8 25:23) and ‘O pity those who try to bring a shadow’d life into the sun’ in Act 2 (tr. 18 74:47) where at times there’s an 11 part ensemble over a 4 part chorus. But the sheer life of the performance amply compensates and you have the choice of  LPCM mono or Dolby enhanced mono. I prefer the former which, while less rounded, has more immediacy. In sum, this earliest complete visual representation of Peter Grimes isn’t just a valuable benchmark by which to judge its successors but an eloquent performance in its own right whose quality I appreciated more at a second viewing.


Michael Greenhalgh




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