Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peter Grimes (2012)

Peter GrimesThe main strength of Britten's Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character. That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera. One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work. The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones. In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work. With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that's exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer's centenary year.

You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to the specific rhythms of the score and the swells of its tides, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work. There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable. In a predominately English/British cast John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character. Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton's Ellen Orford. It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance. With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.

The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context. (It's nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance). All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones. You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements. Whether it's Aunties "nieces" swaying down the street in their high-heels, curling fingers through hair, whether it's figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it's more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it's as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten's music.

Stuart Laing's sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with. All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it. There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated in a static kind of way as the work goes on. The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and "boxed-in", again reflecting the nature of this society. Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on. It's by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn't supposed to be.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition. The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss. There's also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.

This new video of Britten's masterpiece opera "Peter Grimes" gives us an excellent performance from an all English cast in this 2012 La Scala production. The performances are wonderful. John Graham-Hall and Susan Gritton are exemplary as the troubled loner fisherman and his sympathetic soul mate, Ellen; also a bit of a lost soul. Montagu Slater's libretto, after the poem "The Borough" by George Crabbe, uses the metaphor of the old-fashioned, cantankerous Grimes in a small, gossipy fishing village to point out the tragedy of gossip veiled in religious hypocrisy. Contemporary designer Richard Jones' production places the story in a strange mid-1980s world where people go to church, but still find time to support the local brothels and pubs and dance studios (the scenes of some disco-type choreography instead of what was supposed to be barn dance are a bit hokey and distracting) The tragic sub-element in the story is Grimes' poor fortune with young boy "apprentices" who have run away, died and ultimately one last accidental death. In both the original setting and now this modernized view, the older, anti-social "old school" fisherman as a potential pedophile plays heavily but Jones' setting and the wonderful but troubling portrayal by Francesco Malvuccio as the "boy" veers a little more uncomfortably in that direction. Another angle here is that Graham-Hall portrays Peter Grimes as a man quite "on the edge" psychologically; this performance is wonderful but quite a bit different than the stoic, stubborn vision of Jon Vickers, for example. Some of the secondary roles are great too, especially Felicity Palmer as the two-faced, self righteous "Auntie" (The penultimate scene where Grimes envisions a conversation with Ellen who he proposes to and then she rebuffs him is pretty manic)The orchestra and choir of the Teatro alla Scala perform wonderfully and Robin Ticciati is a bit quirky but very controlled and accurate Britten interpreter. This is an interesting and very irony rich view of the classic story with great performances. I do not think I would make this my only video performance of "Peter Grimes" but is well worth having in a library of contemporary treatments of masterworks!

Buy Peter Grimes (2012) Now

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