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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)
Peter Grimes – Christopher Ventris (tenor); Ellen Orford – Emily Magee (soprano); Captain Balstrode – Alfred Muff (baritone); Bob Boles – Rudolf Schasling (tenor); Swallow – Richard Angas (baritne); Auntie – Liliana Nikiteanu (mezzo); Ned Keene – Cheyne Davidson (tenot); Niece 1 - Sandra Tratnigg (soprano); Niece 2 – Liyuba Chucrova (mezzo); Mrs. Sedley – Cornelia Kallisch (soprano); Rev. Horace Adams – Martin Zysett (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of Zürich Opera/Franz Welser-Möst
Directed for the stage by David Pountney
Directed for TV and video by Felix Breisach
rec. Zürich Opera House, 13, 21, 23 December 2005
EMI CLASSICS 5009719 [2 DVDs: 150:00]

An awful lot of opera DVDs seem to be coming out of Zürich these days. Some have come my way, and pretty good they’ve been on the whole. I wonder if it’s the pull of Welser-Möst in the pit. He does seem to have a loyal following, and I for one enjoyed the fruits of his stay in England, more so than some.

The orchestral playing is one of the stronger points in this Peter Grimes, which is uneven in other respects. I must say I expected good things when seeing David Pountney’s name as director, but the production emerges with mixed honours.

Its biggest flaw, and one which is mentioned in Eric Roseberry’s liner-note, is the complete absence of the sea. By this I mean that the décor and staging are very much interiorised and any feeling of the elemental power of the sea, either by suggestion, lighting, backdrops or whatever device, is completely ignored. I’m aware of Britten’s famous comment - also mentioned in the booklet - that the opera has ‘nothing to do with the sea’, meaning of course that the themes of isolation, victimisation, run deep within the piece. So the basic setting here is a series of ladders and columns atop which sit the various members of the community, a constant presence commenting on the action, akin to Greek tragedy. Here Pountney’s production really scores, but the famous interludes, as well as much of the text, tell us a lot about how the sea is a constant factor in these people’s lives, its beauty, its danger, how it shapes their whole lives. Indeed, it becomes a metaphor for something much greater than us, perhaps not quite Whitman-esque, but certainly ever-present. In this staging, the costumes are the only hints that this is taking place anywhere near the sea, and even they could be more accurate. So it becomes a rather clean-cut, almost cerebral staging which, for me, misses a whole dimension of this score. There is a feeling of ritual at work, which has its moments and indeed is very powerful in places, as in Sunday Morning, where instead of the bustle of the village, we get a stylised processional among the columns. But the Storm and Dawn are fatally lacking atmosphere, which admittedly in other productions only comes from various projection and lighting effects, but is preferable to what we get here.

The singing is pretty good on the whole, with a powerful Grimes from British tenor Christopher Ventris. I last encountered him in Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert, and he is a commanding presence, characterising sharply and singing with superb tone and accuracy.

American Emily Magee is an affecting Ellen and their scenes together are as moving as they ought to be. I’m less impressed with other principals, who sing well but struggle with the English diction, mangling some of the phrases to such a degree that I had to resort to the subtitles.

The orchestral playing really is superb and Welser-Möst shapes the score with precision and feeling. Picture quality is up to the usual excellent standard from this source, but the flimsy booklet is poor by any standards and I’m not sure why it needed to stretch to two discs, particularly as there are no extras.

I could only compare this to the 1994 Arthaus ENO production conducted by David Atherton and with Philip Langridge in the title role. Although slightly updated and stylised by director Tim Albery, it has a dark intensity that is altogether more gripping, to say nothing of the quality casting right down to the smallest part. Whilst the sound and picture are not as sharp as this newer source, it provides a much more satisfying all-round experience and is probably a safer bet for your DVD library, especially as it’s on one disc.

Tony Haywood


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