No production of Peter Grimes can ever have started with two low-flying passes over stage setting and audience by a Spitfire, but that is what happened at 20.32 on the opening night (of three) of this year's major event at the Aldeburgh Festival--Grimes on the Beach. "Glastonbury comes to Aldeburgh" was one of the muttered comments that greeted me, and the speaker had a point: on a cold, blustery June evening, in the teeth of a north easterly wind, with the sea crashing on the shingle, conditions for opera in the open air could hardly be described as ideal. But the audience had come prepared, with sleeping bags (to cushion the shingle and to keep feet and legs warm), with souwesters, with bobble hats and hoodies--anything less like a conventional opera house audience could hardly have been imagined. And so started the extraordinarily ambitious centrepiece of the Britten centenary Aldeburgh Festival: an open air performance of Peter Grimes, with the same forces who had sung and performed it in concert with such stunning success in Snape Maltings ten days previously, only this time fully staged and directed by Tim Albery against a backdrop of the North Sea and East Anglian sky where, as Britten's eponymous hero sings so eloquently, he is "rooted".
The first thing to say is that the stage setting looks magnificent: an acting and singing area constructed of upturned boats, wooden walkways, steps to scaffold towers either side that gave height and depth to the proceedings. And as the natural light faded and the stage lighting began to pick out myriad details, of costume, props, glances between protagonists, some really exciting stage imagery began to take shape. Albery proved to have a very sure touch in his blocking and moving of the soloists among the successive stage tableaux: once you become aware of the very long distances involved (in the Moot Hall Prologue, no Peter Grimes can ever have been farther away and more isolated from his accusers than was Alan Oke tonight) you become drawn in to the unfolding drama in unexpected ways. The true vocation of the nieces can rarely have been made so explicit early on in Act One, Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford flirting and simpering with the male townsfolk from a high scaffold platform stage right, fighting against the north easterly wind to keep their dresses in place and to prevent the odd Marilyn Monroe moment! And I was hugely impressed with the stage presence and vocal intensity of Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford, standing alone centre stage, taking on the inhabitants of the Borough as their hounding of Peter Grimes begins. David Kempster's Balstrode was once again as commanding as he had proven to be in the Maltings, dark and magnificent vocally and every syllable cleanly articulated.
But--and this will be very much a matter of personal opinion--the blending of pre-recorded orchestra and chorus with the live singers, expertly and sensitively miked, only worked for me to a certain extent. Yes, one can hear the orchestra through the amazing array of speakers that are nowhere visible, but the orchestral detail is approximate and the natural ambiance (wind, waves on the shingle) is a factor that either adds to the experience or, in my case, takes away slightly from it. I found a very different sound world to the north side of the stage area than to the south because, of course, the sound was being carried on the wind. What I did find impressive was the advance in body mike technology that gave all the soloists presence, bloom and depth in their singing. And once again conductor Steuart Bedford provided miracles of coordination, marshalling his soloists to perfection against the pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack.
So, as intended, this Grimes on the Beach was a great experience-- an operatic happening. I did not sit through to the end, having seen and heard enough to agree that the original vision of Aldeburgh Music's Chief Executive Jonathan Reekie CBE, who worked tirelessly to make it all happen, had been vindicated in spades. He has simply created a great and memorable event. It was in keeping with the spirit of the evening that Reekie himself, dressed like a longshoreman, was to be seen striding over the shingle to the water's edge: other heavily padded and muffled guests included Glyndebourne's Gus Christie. I very much doubt there will ever be another Peter Grimes quite like it, but what a way to commemorate Britten's masterpiece one hundred years after his birth. And more than 3,000 people, many of them not regular opera goers, will have the chance to experience it in the two remaining performances, on 19 and 21 June. They are in for a memorable time.
Photos: by courtesy of Julia Ransome