Britten: Peter Grimes

Aldeburgh Festival

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, 16th June 2013 5 stars

It is 13 years since the Snape Maltings Concert Hall last resounded to a full-scale, semi-staged concert performance of Peter Grimes. And now, as then, it seemed on occasion during the second performance of the opera as the big opener for the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival that the storm music conjured up out of nowhere by the (then) 32 year old composer was about to lift the Maltings roof off once again. Where did this extraordinary music come from? The sheer visceral force of the sound world created, in a performance such as this one, is one of the most thrilling experiences an opera lover can have. It was simply magnificent.

First things first: there are actually five performances of Peter Grimes at this year's centenary Festival. Two were given in the Maltings, with orchestra and chorus being recorded as they played and sang, over the opening weekend. Three more will be given, fully staged but making use of the pre-recorded orchestra and chorus, on Aldeburgh beach, in a production directed by Tim Albery. These take place on 17, 19 and 21 June. Festival organizers can already be seen giving anxious glances skywards, but all performances are already sold out and they promise to be a 'great event'. The element of karaoke notwithstanding, it will be quite something to experience Britten's music and to see his characters from the Borough onstage on that particular stretch of shoreline, with the North Sea behind and the waves rasping on the Aldeburgh shingle. So full marks to the Festival organizers and to Aldeburgh Music for their vision and their willingness to take a risk: this open air Peter Grimes will be quite unlike any other!

But back to the weekend performance. As with the Opera North production in 2000, the chorus was arranged along the back wall of the stage, the orchestra filled the stage area proper and the soloists sat and stood front of stage, between audience and orchestra, not a copy in sight, delivering their roles over the full-blooded sound made by a magnificent Britten Pears Orchestra under the supremely fluent and persuasive baton of Steuart Bedford. It worked to perfection. Despite the huge sound made by the orchestra (and Bedford really whipped them up into some of the most blood-curdling Grimes climaxes that I have ever experienced), the soloists were not only beautifully audible but crystal clear in their diction. As a result it would be hard to imagine a more immediate Peter Grimes, a performance that would bring the soloists any closer to their audience. This was true, as it had to be, for the evening's vocal star performer: Alan Oke seemed to inhabit the role, conveying with a tilt of the head, a tiny gesture, a half step forwards or to the side, every nuance of character of the opera's fisherman hero (or anti-hero). Oke sang the part beautifully: from pianissimo introspection, to his mf exchanges with Ellen Orford, to his odd fortissimo outburst: the dynamics varied constantly but his tone was even, creamy and beautiful throughout. On the basis of this sing, I cannot wait to see him reprise the very different role of Aschenbach at the Maltings this autumn!

There was scarcely a weak link in the rest of the cast. David Kempster sang the role of Captain Balstrode strongly and nobly, with superb diction, and made a real impression. Boles, Swallow, Adams, Keene and Hobson were all vividly and effectively characterized by Robert Murray, Henry Waddington, Christopher Gillet, Charles Rice and Stephen Richardson respectively, and none of them put a foot wrong: conveying, without a costume, prop or stage effect in sight, the foibles of each character and the hierarchy of the Borough that Britten establishes so cleverly. Each showed just how much can be conveyed by a tone of voice, a wheedling inflection, a hint of being drunk, a whiff of conspiracy. The ladies were equally strong. As Ellen Orford, Giselle Allen sang powerfully and persuasively, and effectively became a broken woman by the end: my only criticism being her slight tendency to swallow her consonants with her voice under pressure. This applied neither to Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs Sedley nor to Gaynor Keeble as Auntie, the landlady whose female staff offer more than mere alcoholic beverages to the inhabitants of the Borough. Both characterized their roles vividly and perceptively: these were real people we were listening to onstage, and however many times one might have seen Peter Grimes in the opera house, these performances had authenticities all of their own. Rounding off an exceptionally strong line-up of soloists, Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford were both attractive and persuasive as the two 'nieces': and watching them sing the roles front of stage, I realized for the first time just how much music Britten gave to these vignette characters.

Opera North and the Guildhall was outstandingly good--crisp, always precisely with the conductor, capable of a dynamic from the ethereal, hardly audible echoing "œGrimes" to the fullest-blooded sound imaginable for the hue and cry scenes. The orchestral playing was almost virtuosic--the young players of the Britten Pears Orchestra had clearly been rehearsed and coaxed by Bedford to give the Grimes performance of their lives. Simply fabulous in all departments. Then the all-female quartet "From the gutter": I have never previously heard this wonderful passage sung so poignantly, persuasively and effectively--every word in place, every cadence realized by four singers listening intently to their own melodic lines and to those of the others. Haunting. Then the mounting hue and cry for Peter Grimes in Act Three, building up to the ffff repeated callings of his name--I had never realized before that every soloist joins in this spine-tingling chorus except for Ellen Orford, Balstrode and Auntie. She remains mute, while all around her-- including both nieces--stir themselves and others up to join the manhunt for Grimes. My list could go on, but the point should have been made: this was a first-class, thrilling, magnificent performance of an opera that can still surprise you and catch you by the throat no matter how many times you may have heard it.

What a start to the Britten centenary Festival. What a musical underpinning for Grimes on the Beach. It deserves a full description on the site in due course and provided the weather stays at least half decent, I shall endeavour to provide one.

By Mike Reynolds