Britten - Peter Grimes

Opéra National de Paris-Bastille - January 29 2004

Conductor: Roderick Brydon. Production: Graham Vick. Peter Grimes: Anthony Dean Griffey. Ellen Orford: Brigitte Hahn. Captain Balstrode: Peter Sidhom. Auntie: Claire Powell. First Niece: Carolyn Sampson. Second Niece: Valérie Condoluci. Bob Boles: Ian Caley. Swallow: Michael Druiett. Mrs. (Nabob) Sedley: Della Jones. Rev. Horace Adams: Neil Jenkins. Ned Keene: Jason Howard. Hobson: Lynton Black. Orchestra & Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

The Bastille production of Peter Grimes (Graham Vick) is a model of intelligent, meaningful updating. It sets the story in contemporary Britain against the ambiguous (and highly topical) background of "name-and-shame" hysteria and hype surrounding child abuse and paedophilia. The degree of realism comes as a sharp shock: the people we see on stage are people we might see any day in any number of run-down corners of the UK. Not Aldeburgh, these days a highly respectable middle-class seaside town (the fact that Britten and Pears lived there attests to that!); but places like west Wales, where most of the population are out of work with no other prospect than a lifetime on welfare.

The inquest is held in an infant school, with brightly-coloured plastic chairs and children’s paintings taped to the windows. Outside the windows, locals pace up and down carrying anti-Grimes placards. The opera proper opens with fishermen queuing to have their catch weighed, packed in polystyrene boxes and loaded on a refrigerated truck. In the foreground, the women scrub floors; to the side, they iron. On Sunday morning, Ellen and John watch the sea from a shabby VW Golf while a couple make love in a nearby Honda. Like many people in poor coastal areas, Grimes lives in a caravan (trailer in the US). The village dance takes place, not in the Aldeburgh Moot Hall, but in the back of a truck rigged up with coloured lights. There’s a pinball machine and a pool table, there are old tyres used as swings and garbage skips, and as the villagers’ anger swells, so does their libido. Grimes’ caravan is burnt out by the end of the opera.

Like many modern productions, this one caused a great deal of booing at its first night a couple of years ago, but has otherwise since been deservedly applauded as excellent. Which it is.

A couple of years ago, so was the cast. Ben Heppner sang Peter, Susan Chilcott was Ellen, Stephanie Blyth brought magnetic presence to the part of Auntie. This time round we had a younger, less famous leading pair, and felt the difference. Brigitte Hahn has a deep-sounding, rather plummy voice for a soprano and pasty diction: had I not known the words by heart, I wouldn’t have known what she was singing. She has a moving tone, put to good use in her “embroidery” aria, but was barely audible in the middle range, especially over the orchestra or against the chorus. She fared better in the quartet “From the gutter”. Antony Dean Griffey made a lyrical Grimes with an agreeable timbre, at ease in the calmer portions of his role, less so when called on to show more agitated emotions. He, too, was hard to hear in ensembles, but put in a good “Pleiades” aria and was best of all in his final, mad scene. Overall, my feeling was both he and Hahn would be more suitably employed in Don Giovanni.

The supporting cast was made up mainly of British troupers who would have come over better at Covent Garden than in the vast Bastille. Jason Howard stood out in the role of Ned Keene. Della Jones (Mrs Sedley) sadly has little voice left.

The orchestra and chorus, in the event, were the stars of the show, though the former sounded occasionally as if they were still studying the relatively unfamiliar score rather than having it under their skin. Combined with Roderick Brydon’s relatively cautious tempi, this made for an occasionally pedestrian feel to the music. Choral scenes were, however, outstanding - and surprisingly comprehensible.

There’s been a cold spell in France and there was something of the sanatorium about the audience. Grimes’ entry to the pub during the storm reduced both on-stage villagers and the audience to silence for “Now, the Great Bear…,” but as soon as the volume picked up for “But if the horoscope’s bewildering…” there was a massive outbreak of coughing, as during each sea interlude. One lady some rows behind me was audibly at death’s door.

Grimes seems to be all the rage this season. Next stop: Brussels.

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