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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes (1945)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor) – Peter Grimes
Patricia Racette (soprano) – Ellen Orford
Anthony Michaels Moore (baritone) – Captain Balstrode
Dean Peterson (baritone) – Hobson
John Del Carlo (baritone) – Swallow
Felicity Palmer (soprano) – Mrs Sedley
Jill Grove (mezzo) – Auntie
Greg Fedderly (tenor) –Bob Boles
Bernard Fitch (tenor) – Rev. Horace Adams
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (baritone) – Ned Keene
Leah Partridge, Erin Morley (soprano) – Nieces
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Donald Runnicles
John Doyle (Production)
Recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 15 March 2008
Originally transmitted live to cinemas
Region Code: 0, Aspect Ration 16:9, LPCM Stereo and DTS 5.1 Surround


Experience Classicsonline

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.

Simon Thompson


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