Sunday 24 May 2009

ENO presents Peter Grimes (the rare absurdist farce, black comedy verison)

Director David Alden seems to have managed something of a coup for his new staging of Britten's masterpiece Peter Grimes at English National Opera: he appears to have located and restored an earlier draft of the piece where a somewhat different approach was taken, melding theatre of the absurd, black comedy and outright farce. Sadly, it is easy to see why Britten made the changes he did.

Okay, I don't believe that either; however, the only alternative explanation for this embarrassingly bad production is that Alden is completely useless. A theory for which he has presented some pretty compelling evidence this evening. That said, had I read the programme fully before hand, I might have known we were destined to get off on the wrong foot, since he is very dismissive of Paul Bunyan.

If fairness, not everyone destroys their reputation. The orchestra do sound very good indeed, and Gardner gets some good sounds from them (unfortunately, the last time I saw this, it was a live relay from the Met with the man himself, Runnicles, in the pit, and this doesn't match the magic of that musically). There are some good singers too: Stuart Skelton in the title role, Gerald Findlay as Balstrode and Matthew Best as Swallow. The women are more problematic, especially when it comes to making out what they're singing, and none of the casting seems quite right - in particular Amanda Roocroft as Ellen who is often inaudible and doesn't seem a big enough voice for the hall. Sadly, any fine vocal performance are totally ruined by the aforementioned directorial ineptitude.

To begin at the beginning, we see the inquest taking place in what appears to be the slightly odd setting of a marble hall. Then the real oddities start: who, you may well wonder, are these two young ladies, dressed like girl guides, carrying voodoo dolls and seeming to be a lot more than just friends. As it turns out, they are a slightly creative reading of Auntie's two nieces. Auntie herself is equally puzzling, looking like she is auditioning for the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

The court scene over, Grimes brings in his ship alone. For some reason the mooring post is indoors, creating something of a health and safety hazard (which the nieces unaccountably limbo under). That the rope goes slack when the boat is pulled in is also a little annoying. The pub set is more confusing still, consisting mainly of worn old sofas and arm chairs. What's more, the chorus is kept outside in the storm behind an odd wall that raises and lowers periodically to remind us it's nasty out. Still, Auntie is not totally without heart, and while they're not allowed into the pub, they are all permitted a bottle of grog to ward off the storm. When they do all finally come in for the sea shanty, it is a curiously underwhelming moment.

Act two is better done, but only marginally so. Ellen skips onto the stage so gaily that one half expects her to swing from a lamppost and declare that she is, in fact, singing in the rain. Grimes, on the other hand, comes across as so one-dimensionally evil and beastly that it is impossible to discern what she might see in him. The character is only interesting when there is ambiguity (Alden acknowledges the need for this in an interview in the programme, what a shame he wasn't capable of conveying it).

Then we see Grimes' hut. Things are odd here too. While the apprentice cowers in the foetal position (about the only thing he ever does do), one cannot help but notice Grimes has made a mistake in constructing his house on a thirty degree incline. There is meant to have been a landslide, yet it appears to have had a very odd effect since both the way down to the sea at the back, and also the area surrounding the front door, appear to have compromised. Essentially the director does not seem to have a picture in his head that makes sense, or, if he does, he hasn't communicated it to everyone else. It further irks when Grimes orders the apprentice to descend to the sea, which he does by climbing up a ladder.

But this is, frankly, small potatoes compared to what Alden has in store for the final act. The Borough, it seems, is a veritable swingers' paradise. Swallow parades around in a pink tutu (and later, for reasons passing understanding, with his trousers down - I'd love to know if Best asked what the motivation was for that and what possible answer Alden might have; given how judgemental everyone is of Grimes, they're remarkably blase about taking orders from a man in his underpants). Auntie's nieces are now dressed as a soldier and sailor, and choreographed in a way that would make a robot from fifty years ago look fluid and elegant.

The choreography in general is abysmal. To what extent this is down to the sad and untimely death of Claire Glaskin (during the first week of rehearsal) is unclear. However, the programme credits her with The Makropulos Case, another dire production, saved only by Mackerras and some good singing. Interestingly, Alden's brother directed that travesty. Perhaps a study is required into whether an inability to respect the text is genetic. But I digress. It's unclear how much was Glaskin and how much the credited movement director Maxine Braham. However, it basically looks like what they really wanted to do was choreograph Guys and Dolls (the moment in act three were various men bid goodnight by repeatedly remove their hats is amongst the most prominent examples) or West Side Story (think the gangs facing off and clicking their fingers as the mob advances). However, it looks both out of place and poorly executed.

Indeed, as the first scene of the last act drew to a close, it was taking every ounce of my self-control not to burst into hysterical laughter, particularly when what appeared to be the rabbit from Donnie Darko wandered onto the stage for no readily apparent reason.

Grimes' final descent into madness should be powerful and moving. Sadly, here it didn't represent much of a change and I found myself wishing he'd just get on with it and drown himself so I could go home.

Often, at this point, I would say that's not the end of the world, so long as the music is good. And it's doubtless true that, if I'd been blindfolded prior to entering the theatre, I might very well have had a good night. Unfortunately no one was on hand to perform this much needed public service, with the result that every time I tried to close my eyes and blot it out, I couldn't unwatch the silliness I'd seen and it refused to leave my mind.

I cannot conceive how it's been widely reviewed so well (then again, I seem destined to be perennially at odds with the London opera critics - after all, I loved ENO's Aida, disliked Haitink's Parsifal and now detest this). I feel badly cheated by this and rather wish I hadn't travelled all the way down here to see it. A few weeks back they offered me a free ticket for the press night - even if our policy was to take such offers, I still would have felt ripped off. ENO would do well to burn the sets and erase any evidence that this travesty ever existed.


Judith Ogden said...

I saw this on Saturday and agree with a lot of what you say.

For me, it was only Amanda Roocroft's words which were almost entirely inaudible. This was, I felt, because her vowels were almost all exactly the same and there were no distinguishable consonants. It was a real shame not be able to hear the words which would presumably have helped understand the story.

I hadn't seen PG before and felt that this was a production which most definitely wasn't a good introduction to the opera. The dramatic devices (writhing nieces, man throwing up in bucket, garage door effect showing the unfortunates outside in the storm, off-putting tilt to the floor of Grimes' den) really got in the way of the story for me. It was a relief when it was just Stuart Skelton on stage as I thought the clarity of the set and lack of irritating director's ideas allowed the acting to speak for itself.

I was glad I went (all the way from Bristol!) but wished that the story and music could have been allowed to speak for itself.

And will someone please tell Amanda Roocroft to work on her diction...??!

Tam Pollard said...

I lived in Bristol for about five years.

You may be right and it was certainly case that Roocroft stood out for being inaudible; I may be being a little harsh on some of the others.

If you want to see a more conventional Grimes the one I mentioned at the top of the review (with Runnicles in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera in NY) is out on DVD. I haven't got round to watching it yet, but the broadcast was excellent.

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