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DVD REVIEW
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)

Peter Grimes….Philip Langridge (Tenor)
Ellen Orford…Janice Cairns (Sop)
Captain Balstrode…Alan Opie (Baritone)
Auntie…Ann Howard (Con)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus/David Atherton
Recorded London 1994 as BBC/RM Arts co-production
DVD with subtitles
ARTHAUS 100382 [144mins]


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This is a specially filmed version of the English National Opera stage production from a decade ago, now re-launched in DVD format. The result is one of the most successful, all-round opera filmings I have ever seen.

The camera work is managed imaginatively without pretension which is in keeping with a production that strikes a balance between realism and simple symbolism. The latter quality prevails in the images that are shown during the musical interludes. These convey the enigmatic power of nature and the sea that in turn reflect the ambiguities of human nature in the story. The camera enhances the tension between the public and the private that is so skilfully directed in the stage production.

But no dish can be perfect without quality ingredients and here we have a cast as good as you can get for this opera. The most important ingredient is, of course, the portrayal of the anti-hero himself.

For years I had a bit of a problem with Grimes, finding that I could never fully tune into the opera in spite of being surrounded by people, such as my music master at school, who were besotted with Britten generally and Grimes in particular. It was only when I saw a performance on TV with Jon Vickers as Grimes that the obvious truth dawned. The problem (or at least my problem) was Peter Pears, the man for whom Britten created the role, and the Pears clones that followed. In watching Pears I could never get away from the prejudice that here was a stereotypically effete, emotionally repressed Englishman thinly disguised in a fisherman's sweater. With the macho Vickers the sweater looked as if it belonged. Emotion was so unfettered that audiences could be left, in the words of distinguished writer and critic Davis Cairns, "utterly drained". There is much of the wounded animal at bay in Peter Grimes, someone who needs to fight back but is not sure how. Vickers attempts at fighting back were highly assertive. Britten, famously, did not like the portrayal at all.

I am not alone in this. Peter Conrad in his book on opera, A Song of Life and Death says of Pears that the "fragile, white, androgynous voice didn't belong in a homespun jersey and sou'wester". Of Vickers: "He invested the character with a virile strength of will which alarmed the composer."

In this DVD version, not only is Philip Langridge's interpretation of the role just right in my opinion, being a convincing compromise between the two extremes above, but he has the acting power to be able to convey it, not to mention a commanding voice well experienced in handling Britten's melodic lines and subtle word setting. Right from the opening court scene we can observe how he can act with his face, thus allowing the camera to intrusive close-up without the embarrassing result that is often the case in filmed opera. Even without singing he conveys incredulity at his situation, a pained bewilderment that carries with it a sense of gross injustice. So he catches our sympathy from the start, something that is likely to stay through the opera in spite of the less attractive sides to the character that are later revealed.

Langridge’s performance must be among the most compelling operatic portrayals available on film, enormously aided by immaculate playing from the rest of the cast. Janice Cairns plays Ellen Orford as a person of solid integrity and we can see how Grimes would be attracted to the protective side of the character. When she faces the crowd alone the scene is imaginatively filmed in birds eye view from above. With her school books tucked under her arm she has the air of a courageous evangelist. Alan Opie, an experienced Balstrode, shares with us the pain of the conscience that pricks him.

The production skilfully manages the crowd scenes, striking a balance between vigorous representation of a community at work and play, and a threatening, collective force. This is done by contrasting bustling stage business with scenes where the people become a tableau-esque Greek chorus. David Atherton conducts with a musical energy that adds edge to the drama and the recorded sound is good.

When English National Opera mount a production of the nation’s greatest operatic monument, it must surely put the company under a lot of pressure. It ought to be what it does best and in this case it certainly does not fail. The filmed version does it real justice.

John Leeman

 



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