Peter Grimes has been quite lucky on
record. There is the composer’s own recording with Peter Pears
in the title role and Joan Cross as Ellen Orford. Then there is
the Colin Davis recording, with Jon Vickers and Heather Harper,
based on the Royal Opera House production. This disc, from Bernard
Haitink with Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Felicity Lott also comes
from the Royal Opera House. And then there is the Richard Hickox
recording on Chandos with Philip Langridge.
All are completely recommendable and most people will want more than one. Pears and Vickers represent the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to singing the title role. It was Vickers’ assumption which blasted a route for a whole variety of tenors, all the more refreshing at a period when English tenors were struggling not to sound like Pears in a whole variety of Britten’s tenor parts.
Time has lent something of a perspective on this and Vickers on disc can sound a little mannered. In fact, Vickers live also sounded mannered but he had such an incredible stage presence that you forgot the mannerisms. He brings an elemental power to the role which no-one else quite matches on disc. In fact, I heard him in Peter Grimes when Bernard Haitink first conducted it at the Royal Opera House, with Heather Harper doing her last Ellen Orford. It was an engrossing and enlightening performance. For someone who had always had a problem with Peter Pears’ vocalism, the combination of Vickers with Haitink’s European view of the work was a magical one.
Haitink’s recording, with Rolfe-Johnson and Lott, was made in 1992 and has now been reissued by EMI in a budget set whereby the third disc in the box contains the notes and libretto in PDF form, to be accessed via your PC - a neat solution in many ways.
Both Rolfe-Johnson and Langridge after him owe something to both Pears and Vickers. The ability to use the dramatic potential of the voice and link the role to other significant dramatic tenor parts is coupled with a sensibility which I can only call English. Of the two, Langridge was the greater Grimes I think but Rolfe-Johnson’s account comes over remarkably strongly on this disc and he has the advantage of having the more beautiful voice.
This means that the poetic moments are intensely beautiful and you are less aware of him having to manage the voice the way some tenors have to. But he has to work hard in the nastier bits. On stage Rolfe-Johnson had a warm, open persona, one which comes over in his voice. It is to his credit that his Grimes is just as troubled and angry as those on other recordings.
I must confess that I am in two minds about Lott’s Ellen Orford. Lott’s voice lacks that element of steel which someone like Joan Cross could bring to the character. Many of Cross’s roles for Britten are tricky to cast nowadays; that combination of clean tone within a dramatic voice is less common nowadays. It is important to bear in mind that Cross’s repertoire included Wagner, Strauss and Verdi. In fact the American dramatic soprano Christine Brewer continues to include Britten roles in her repertoire and probably has the sort of voice type closest to Cross.
But if Vickers could make it possible for tenors of a more dramatic cast to sing Grimes, then there is no reason why more lyric sopranos should not sing Ellen even if it has to be without that element of steel. Lott simply sounds a little too nice, too lady-like. That said, the role is finely sung and there are many, many moving moments. I have rarely heard the embroidery aria sung so beautifully.
The third important role is Captain Balstrode, here sung by Thomas Allen. He sounds less the bluff sea-dog than some other singers, but the sheer warmth and likeable approachability of his voice is an immense help in this role, particularly on disc. Allen is the affecting voice of sense and reason in the grim unreason of the Borough.
In fact it is the chorus who form one of the most important characters. Here we have the immense advantage of the Covent Garden chorus having sung the role often on stage. They sound like a believable mob, a dangerously implacable one at that. They also sing with precision and contribute some moments of great beauty.
The remaining solo roles are strongly and characterfully taken, again benefiting from the singers’ experience on stage. There is never the slightest difficulty in telling the voices and characters apart.
The other main interest on the disc is the conducting of Bernard Haitink. He is an experienced opera conductor, so there was never going to be any doubt that his would be a gripping and well structured reading. He brings out the international feel in Britten’s writing, teasing out the hints of Berg and others in the music. The end of Act 2 has never felt so magical, nor so beautifully controlled. In fact, throughout the opera I was repeatedly amazed at the way Haitink made the music flow effortlessly between scenes, linking it into one well modulated whole. It helps that he is conducting his own orchestra - the recording was made whilst Haitink was musical director of Covent Garden - and that they respond to him.
In an ideal world one should have a selection of different Peter Grimes recordings depending on one’s mood. In the Gramphone review of the Richard Hickox recording, they placed that recording slightly above this one. But frankly, I would hesitate to have to choose between Rolfe-Johnson and Langridge. What makes this particular recording extra special is the insight that Haitink brings, plus the way he links Britten’s music to that of his international colleagues without ever losing that wonderful whiff of Suffolk Air.