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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes - Opera in three Acts and a Prologue Op 33 (1945) [144:41]
Peter Grimes – Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); Ellen Orford – Felicity Lott (soprano); Captain Balstrode – Thomas Allen (baritone); Auntie – Patricia Payne (mezzo); Nieces – Maria Bovino and Gillian Webster (sopranos); Bob Boles – Stuart Kale (tenor); Swallow – Stafford Dean (bass); Mrs Sedley – Sarah Walker (mezzo); Rev Horace Adams – Neil Jenkins (tenor); Ned Keene – Simon Keenlyside (baritone); Hobson – David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Bernard Haitink
rec. Watford Town Hall, June 1992
synopsis but no text included
EMI CLASSICS 5091562 [72:05 + 72:36]
Experience Classicsonline

Each of the three complete and one incomplete recordings of Peter Grimes using the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House has strong merits, not least in terms of an understanding from everyone involved of the character and idiom of the work. At the same time, the differences between them are considerable, with each illuminating different aspects. Put crudely, where the second complete recording, with Jon Vickers under Sir Colin Davis, emphasizes the dramatic power of the work, the present version concentrates much more on the musical drama and character. That is not to say that it lacks impact but that all the way through it is the sheer quality of musical invention and characterisation that mainly strikes the listener.
The sheer beauty of Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s singing is a great delight in itself, and somehow he manages to achieve this without losing sight of the drama or of the more brutal aspects of the character. Personally I find this no less a convincing portrayal of the central character than Pears or Vickers. Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen are also wholly within their parts, and again, like almost all the large cast, they sing with great beauty of tone as well as projection of the characters. I should make particular mention of Neil Jenkins’ very lovable portrayal of the ineffectual Rev Horace Adams, but all of the many smaller parts are well taken and well characterised.
I have started by writing about the soloists, but this is an opera where the chorus and orchestra are of crucial importance. They are indeed one of the great assets of the set, together with Haitink’s superbly clear direction which is always alive to the both the complexity and the logic of the score. As a result you find yourself hearing things that you have never noticed before. Unfortunately the recording engineers partly undo this in their very distant placing of all the many off-stage effects. The first scene of Act 2 for instance is set in the village street outside the church, and Ellen’s solo with the apprentice and later her duet with Peter are mainly accompanied by the congregation and organ from inside the church. Clearly they need to sound more distant than the soloists and in a different acoustic from them, but the difference here is so great that if you set the volume loud enough to hear the words sung by the chorus you feel as though the soloists are shouting in your ears. This does matter, as the ironic juxtaposition of the two sets of singers makes this one of the great scenes not only of this opera but of opera in general. The village band in Act 3 Scene 1 and similar effects elsewhere are also much too recessed. This is not a minor complaint given the number of occasions that Britten employs them. Apart from this the recording is very clear, with the internal balance of the orchestra particularly well caught.
The booklet with the set contains a helpful detailed synopsis, and the diction of the cast is good, but I imagine that most listeners will want to follow the libretto in detail. The box states that this can be obtained on the EMI Classics website but I have been unable to achieve this – fuller details on how to do this would be helpful or the claim should be omitted. This is however not likely to help you to decide whether or not to buy this set. It must be admitted that it does not have the sheer impact that any good live performance will have – especially for instance the recently revived Opera North version – and that the Jon Vickers/Colin Davis version certainly has, but it does reveal aspects of the music and drama which are less obvious but still important.
John Sheppard


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