Britten – Peter Grimes

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels – March 7th 2004

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Willy Decker. Sets and costumes: John Macfarlane. Peter Grimes: Michael Myers. Ellen Orford: Solveig Kringelborn. Captain Balstrode: Terje Stensvold. Auntie: Anne Collins. First niece: Mary Hegarty. Second niece: Sophie Karthäuser. Bob Boles: Ian Caley. Swallow: David Wilson-Johnson. Mrs. Sedley: Sarah Walker. Rev. Horace Adams: Arild Helleland. Ned Keene: Daniel Broad. Hobson: Brian Bannatyne-Scott. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

The difference between this production and the one recently on show at the Bastille in Paris could hardly be greater, though both are excellent.

The Bastille is vast, La Monnaie is a reasonably-sized 19th-century opera house à l’italienne. The Bastille production (which I also reviewed) puts Tony Blair’s contemporary Britain vividly on stage, with a wealth of detail that some people find distracting: fishermen weigh their fish and load it into a truck while their wives iron or scrub floors, children play, Auntie’s nieces lurk and caress, etc, all this against the background of present-day child-abuse hysteria. It’s doubtful that, when La Monnaie scheduled this reprise of the 1994 Decker staging, management knew it would coincide with the start of the trial for child abuse and murder of Marc Dutroux, Belgium’s most-hated man. But it did, a fact which brought an added shiver at some dramatic moments.

Then, this is a fairly simple staging, with mostly black sets – moveable flats – bearing John Macfarlane’s characteristic and always effective, atmospheric, scubbly brushstrokes, and mostly black, plain Victorian dress. Decker is German, of course, and though the analogy can’t be taken far, he gives the work something of the neurotic, expressionist atmosphere of Wozzeck, while the cold but careful lighting throws long, deep shadows reminiscent of expressionist cinema. The crowd movements are brusque and well-concerted, and again, when the Borough reels back as Grimes staggers in, the reaction could be taken from an expressionist movie.

At the Bastille, owing to the size, the sound is necessarily symphonic and individual contributions are blended thoroughly into the whole. In Brussels, though it can’t be described as a chamber performance, things were on a more modest scale, allowing a great deal more detail to emerge – some beautiful woodwind work, for example – and the character of individual voices remained audible in the choruses.

Comparing casts isn’t easy. The Bastille makes terrible demands, whereas the Brussels acoustics and dimensions are kind. Michael Myers and Solveig Kringelborn both sang with very fine tone. Whether either should be appearing at the Met or the Opéra National de Paris, as they are scheduled to (Donna Elvira, Ariadne, etc), is another question. The roles of Balstrode and Bob Boles were unusually well sung. Overall, as a result, this cast sounded stronger than the Bastille’s. However, Anne Collins’ Auntie wasn’t quite as good as published reviews claim, and Sarah Walker, as Mrs Sedley, like Della Jones in Paris, had too little voice left really to make much of the part – but how old must she now be? Wasn’t she already a matronly Cornelia in the ENO’s 70s production of Julius Caesar?

It was good to have this chance to see and hear two such different productions in close succession. By proving that Peter Grimes can be equally effective in such varied approaches, it confirmed to me what a work of genius it is: a real numbers opera, but at the same time through-composed in a way that emerges more with every listening - with fabulous choruses (guaranteed show-stoppers provided conductor and chorus are good enough to stay together). It can withstand various treatments and still deliver the goods. From a composer of 30 or so, all the more remarkable.

By the way, forumopera.com says "C'est sans conteste l'une des meilleures productions de La Monnaie de ces dix ou quinze dernières années et une des lectures les plus abouties du chef-d'oeuvre de Britten." In other words, "this is without contest one of the best productions at La Monnaie these last ten to fifteen years and one of the most successful readings of Britten's masterpiece."

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