This marvellous DVD represents probably the most successful release
in the Met’s current batch of HD relays. While there may be issues
with John Doyle’s somewhat monotonous directing style, the singing
is superb and Runnicles urges the orchestra to new heights.
This opera, surely Britten’s - and Britain’s
- greatest, has fared very well in this country in recent years
with a new recording under Colin Davis on LSO Live, a strong
staging at Covent Garden starring Ben Heppner, and most recently,
and most impressively, Opera North’s stunning production from
Phyllida Lloyd. I was lucky enough to see this twice and it
remains one of the best opera productions I’ve ever experienced.
Perhaps it’s because I come with this baggage, but I was a bit
disappointed with John Doyle’s staging. The set throughout
is a vast wall which takes up the full height of the stage.
There are doors all over it, on every level; characters enter
and exit through the lower ones, while they use the upper ones
to spy on each other (after the church scene, for example) and
to create the oppressive sense of a close-knit community where
nothing goes unnoticed. As an idea it works well, but Doyle
doesn’t have much else to say. His direction of the actors
is a bit hit and miss. Sometimes they gesticulate wildly and
predictably, such as Mrs Sedley in the pub, while at others
they merely stand still. This is a particular problem for the
crowd scenes in Acts 1 and 3 where nothing happens!
Instead the mass of the chorus gazes out at the audience, while
some of the women play with their capes as if to mend nets.
It’s a real missed trick, and especially frustrating in that
the chorus sings these so powerfully. Giving them some more
to do would have made the first scene of Act 3, in particular,
so much more exciting.
His directing of the more intimate scenes
is more successful, and here he is helped by great singing actors.
Towering over all is Anthony Dean Griffey’s majestic Grimes.
His multi-faceted performance is a force of nature, troubled
during the prologue, implacable in Act 1, tortured in Act 2
and raving in Act 3. His remarkable versatile tenor matches
all of Grimes’ moods, most notably in the hut scene. There
is a titanic grandeur to his portrayal, yet a scarred vulnerability
hides just below the surface: he is haunted by the death of
his first apprentice, and this surfaces frighteningly in his
tortured exchange with Balstrode in Act 1, as well as his terrified
hallucination in the hut. During that scene his intimate recollection
of his dreams seems to come from a world which is now truly
lost. His bright but melancholy voice hints at vast unseen
depths in Now the great bear.
Opposite him Racette plays a touchingly
tender Ellen Orford. Her Act 1 aria has a muscular strength
as she takes on the collective bigotry of the village, and her
plangent embroidery aria comes from the depths of a broken soul
who has lost all hope. The finest scene in the opera is the
one that brings the two principals together: the opening of
Act 2. She chats lightly to John as if to put him at ease,
but when she notices the tear in his coat her expression, captured
in a well-placed close-up, perfectly sums up the dread of her
dawning realisation. It is so stunning because it is so understated:
it knocks the hope out of her, and we feel it too. In the subsequent
scene Griffey stresses Grimes’ guilt at having disappointed
Ellen; that is why he lashes out at her. He too realises
that all his hopes are now dead, and the moment when he strikes
her is genuinely shocking. The Now is gossip chorus,
while too static, has a great power because there are so many
of them singing it; the women’s quartet after it is intimate
and touching, evoking their loneliness in this hostile world.
The other roles are all well characterised.
Anthony Michaels Moore is a surprisingly young, vigorous Balstrode,
who tries in vain to restrain the madness around him. Felicity
Palmer is a waspish Mrs Sedley whose voice sounds appropriately
shrill but whose direction is one-dimensional. Greg Fedderly’s
declamatory tenor is just right for an unpleasant Bob Boles,
while John Del Carlo’s Swallow is resonant in the top and middle,
but he loses strength at the bottom. Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings
a dynamic and forceful Ned Keene, though in heavily accented
English. Jill Grove can’t make up her mind whether Auntie is
vigorous or put-upon; she and the nieces all sing strongly,
though, especially in the Act 2 quartet.
The triumph of the evening, however, belongs
to Donald Runnicles, who conducts a finely detailed yet intensely
powerful account of the score. The orchestra really come to
life for him. In the prologue he points up the differences
between the chatty woodwind of the villagers and the halo of
strings that surrounds Grimes, while there is an impulsive swell
in the orchestra to represent the tide as they pull in Grimes’
boat. The storm interlude is exciting and pacy, but he broadens
the tempo for the reprise of the “What harbour shelters peace”
theme. There is a restless energy to the Sunday Morning prelude,
while the Passacaglia is shaped so as to highlight the distinct
contributions from each section; here it feels a bit like a
miniature Young Person’s Guide, and the doleful viola
solo is stunning. There is an understated beauty to the Moonlight
episode, while the power of the final scene comes much more
from the orchestra than from what is happening on stage.
The extras on this disc are also better
than on the other DVDs in this series, though they’re embedded
into the timing of the main disc rather than banded separately.
The costumes – very naturalistic and based on the time of Crabbe’s
poem – are brought to life in one of the interval features as
Natalie Dessay, our sparky host, interviews the Met’s chief
costume designer. There are also brief interviews with director,
set designer, conductor and chorus master. Most interestingly,
however, we also get 5 minutes in Aldeburgh itself where a BBC
journalist introduces us to the host of the local cinema that
is staging the relay and we get a tour of the town and the Britten
sights there. It’s nice that the Met reconnect the piece with
the place it came from.
A very successful disc, then, though buy
it for what you hear rather than what you see.