Wednesday 23 April 2008

There's Runnicles - Peter Grimes at the Met

No, the budget of our humble blog hasn't massively expanded to allow a visit to the Big Apple, even to see Donald Runnicles conducting. Fortunately though, the Metropolitan Opera now broadcasts its Live from the Met relay to cinemas as well as via Radio Three. But the price is steep and, at £25, several times what one would pay for a regular cinema ticket (and, indeed, for live opera: you can get into every opera at this year's Edinburgh festival for less, not to mention everything in the current Royal Opera House season). I don't really see how it can have been the technology that was responsible for the price tag (I assumed it was some form of internet streaming, but some Googling informs me that in fact it is a satellite relay). I did baulk somewhat when the announcer informed us that they thanked [some sponsor whose name eludes me] for making the relay possible: I refuse to believe this is not a tidy little earning for the Met. That said, the seats at the Cameo are more comfortable than in any opera house I've been in and the view of the screen was unobstructed. Better still, this seemed to be the hard-core opera audience of Edinburgh: there was no chatting, loud coughing or coming in midway through the act. Somewhat surprisingly, the 200+ seat venue was totally sold out, turning up at the last minute on a whim I was lucky to get in. Whether this is regular, or whether the crowd was bolstered by those wishing to see the local hero, I cannot say.

The picture is in high definition, and suitably impressive. The [I assume] digital projector had no noticeable flicker. Sound was good, but not great. A cinema's system is almost certainly not installed with the audiophile in mind and I think it would be possible to do better, in particular it struggles to resolve the more complex moments; to put it another way, I think the sound quality is finer in my living room. The credits rolled, rather annoyingly and not, as it turned out, to the performance but rather a pre-recorded exert. We then got some 'behind the scenes' presentation and chat from Natalie Dessay, which I could have done without, though she did a creditable job out of her mother tongue. Did we, for example, really need to see [again, I assume] the stage manager as he announced "Calling Maestro Runnicles to the pit."?

The set is imposing: a vast vertical wall that called to mind the 2006 Edinburgh festival production of Troilus and Cressida (whose overly elaborate mechanical wall failed during the interval on the opening night). Doors in it constantly open for people to sing from. At first this seemed a little silly, especially as each witness was called in turn at the inquest. And initially Anthony Dean Griffey's Grimes sounded too nice and sweet a voice. Patricia Racette's Ellen Orford was very fine, and while she may have struggled a little at the top and had more of a wobble than I care for, her acting and characterisation more than compensated. Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-More) and Ned Keene (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) sang and acted particularly well.

The downstage positioning of the wall in the first scene forces the large cast into a small space and makes for an very claustrophobic feel. The costumes are all very dark, except that Grimes seems to have a hint of colour, marking him as an outcast. As the drama progresses, Grimes becomes more and more chilling. Runnicles delivers a thrilling account of the storm into scene 2, as fine a musical depiction of the elements as I have heard since Mackerras conducted Beethoven's 6th symphony at the 2006 festival. Again the set shifts around, this time to create the pub, and again manages it well. The minor performances here, such as Auntie (Jill Grove) are superb. Then comes the round Old Joe has gone fishing which teeters on the brink of chaos, and yet is superbly controlled by Runnicles and chorus master Donald Palumbo.

As the curtain falls we are once more with Dessay, this time back stage as she pounces on Grimes and Orford for a soundbite. I can't imagine they want that, I would think as a singer herself she would know better. Interestingly, it is quite a shock that they are not English, given the quality of their accents while on stage. But Dessay has my sympathy, and amuses the audience, as she struggles to pronounce Aldeburgh while linking to a live relay just outside the cinema there. We are then treated to some archive footage of the Red House, Britten and Pears' home there. Or, at least, the interior shots (and I have been there, so I know) are accurate. The exterior shots were actually of their previous home on the sea front which they left for Red House (which is not, as the presenter suggested, a few minutes walk from the cinema but right on the edge of town).

Runnicles manages the orchestra magnificently for a beautiful dawn to act II. The wall works well as the church, and all the better as the doors close behind leaving Ellen and the young Prentice (Logan William Erickson) on the beach. The windows open to visually remind us of the congregation's presence. There is an eerie sense of voyeurism and curtain-twitching and we feel the weight of the congregation behind the wall. Grimes is grittier here, there is a shock to the violence, such as when he strikes Ellen. The set then pulls back to to give us Grimes' shack. There is a brilliant lighting effect on Grimes' face as he opens the trap door that leads onto the cliff. Runnicles closes, near silently, with chilling effect, managing to prevent premature applause (no mean feat at this house).

In the second interval we get to meet producer John Doyle and set designer Scott Pask. They've come in for criticism, in part as the set doesn't look like Aldeburgh. I've been there many times, and it's quite true, it doesn't. But if the object of every production was to perfectly recreate the town, I think that would be rather dull. We learn that the dark tar-stained look is much more in keeping with Doyle's native Hastings, also a small English fishing village. We then get a couple of trailers, one of which should carry a health warning: Deborah Voight singing Isolde (wild horses would not drag me there). Just before he returns to the stage, Dessay collars the man himself, in particular what it meant to him as a Briton to conduct Britten (which seemed to rub some of the more nationalistic members of the audience up the wrong way).

As act III opens, Mrs Sedley (superbly played by Felicity Palmer) eavesdrops wonderfully. The set then pulls apart to reveal a dark alley from which Grimes, gipped with madness, emerges. Ellen and Balstrode appear in windows above him in a wonderful use of the set which makes you question whether they're really there or only in his mind. I know that's against the text, because it's very clear they are, but somehow the idea they're not makes it the more chilling: Balstrode actually helping Grimes to kill himself never quite works for me. And then, for the close, the set pulls back completely to reveal music and lighting to match the dawn. The blue cyclorama is hugely disconcerting after the darkness of what's come before, it feels as though the town has swept everything away under the rug in a way that leaves a bitter taste. It leaves the viewer troubled, as it should.

It's a production that has been roundly criticised. Wrongly, in my view. It is straight in a world of silliness, it accentuates the key themes of voyeurism and of a community ostracising those who are different. Some reviews have painted a picture of Runnicles struggling valiantly against the horror which at every turn threatens the music. They are mistaken. Let us hope this makes it to a CD or DVD near you soon.

As always in these things, the camera is important, and I didn't always feel that my eyes were allowed to go where my ears were telling them to be. There was an awkward shot they kept doing, turning back from stage to pit, and a not particularly pleasant one that gave us a look up their nostrils (though, in part, this may have been forced upon them by the position of the set). I found the sub-titles both unnecessary and a little distracting. There was the odd picture drop-out, but the sound always remain.

All in all it was a positive experience. I'm very glad to have seen Grimes and to have seen in under the baton of Runnicles was a real treat. The cinema experience comes impressively close to capturing the live experience, but in other measures it is works away. There's an extra measure of excitement missing. And, enjoyable though it is, it would have to be something pretty special for me to pony up another £25. Let's hope Maestro Runnicles is paged to the pit next season.

The loud cheers that greeted Donald Runnicles superb performance were given a civilised echo in the Cameo.

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