Prior to this performance, I had seen Peter Grimes staged twice. Once by Scottish Opera in a perfectly acceptable production but with an inadequate Grimes, and once in the ENO David Alden production which I detested. In contrast my first experience of Billy Budd (in the marvellous ENO Albery production) was overwhelming. I think it is in consequence of this that I have tended to have a grumble to myself on a regular basis at the insistence on Grimes as Britten's operatic masterpiece. After this performance it is clear to me that I simply had not had the opportunity to realise what an extraordinarily powerful piece it is.
This concert performance will be followed next week by performances on Aldeburgh Beach. This brought real benefits as, unusually for concert opera, the performers had all been rehearsing together for some time. It showed. The soloists were all off score and the individual characterisations were without exception remarkably vivid. I was very grateful to be close enough to the stage to really see every facial expression. Especially notable was the way in which expressions and body language in sections where individuals were not actually singing conveyed a continuing deep engagement with the drama. For example, in the build up to Ellen Orford's arrival at the pub in Act 1 Scene 2 Giselle Allen somehow gave a sense that she was out there on the storm tossed cart.
Hearing an opera score in concert often leads one to pay more attention to aspects which have previously not registered, and this also happened to me at Friday's performance. I was particularly struck by the brief flirtation at the beginning of Act 3 between Swallow and the nieces.
I've already noted that the soloists were across the board exceptional. But Alan Oke, making his role debut as Grimes as I afterwards discovered, was extraordinary. It was partly a question of physical presence and expression by which he consistently conveyed the idea of Grimes both as an outsider and someone whose sanity is frail from the outset. But it was also to do with overall interpretation. For whatever reason I don't recall ever feeling wholly moved by Grimes's plight before. In this performance while there was no question about Grimes's having struck the second apprentice, and shouting brutally at him in the hut scene there was a definite sense of this behavior as arising from a deeply troubled, increasingly mad individual, someone deserving of compassion himself. Vocally Oke had marvellous dynamic range, powering through the orchestra when needed, while sinking elsewhere to a haunted low voice.
Oke was superbly supported by the other principals. I've already mentioned Giselle Allen's Ellen, who really convinced both as another slight outsider who might potentially become herself a victim of the mob, and in her attraction to Grimes. Her confession that their plan of starting fresh has failed was particularly moving. David Kempster's Balstrode had just the right weight and presence, and again somehow conveyed perfectly just from his face that moment in the stage directions at the end of Act Two where he alone realises what has happened. I could single out similar moments with all the other principals, who all made key contributions to the total experience.
The soloists were likewise brilliantly supported by the Britten-Pears Orchestra with the Choruses of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, all under the expert direction of Steuart Bedford. The Britten-Pears Orchestra brought extraordinary intensity to the score and I wish more opportunities could be found for young players to work on full operas like this. In the rich acoustic of the Maltings quite a number of moments were physically shaking in their power, perhaps most of all (and unsurprisingly) the shattering repeated “Peter Grimes” cries of the mob in the final act. Diction was excellent (at least from where I was sitting) and Bedford also deserves enormous credit for successfully balancing soloists and orchestra, one of the trickiest things in my experience to get right in concert opera.
Earlier in the week, under some pressure with work busyness, I had wondered whether I really needed to come and hear a concert performance of Peter Grimes. I couldn't be more thankful that I did. This was a truly special evening. I'll be back next week for the second installment – Grimes on the Beach. On the strength of this performance it should be quite something (though a few prayers to the weather gods are probably in order).
I must confess to not particularly liking Peter Grimes, which I saw in SF some years ago (probably with The Man Himself conducting), or Billy Budd, which I saw in SF and Santa Fe. My favorite Britten operas are Turn of the Screw and Midsummer Night's Dream.
But SF Symphony will be doing semi-staged productions of Grimes next season, so I will have the opportunity to listen harder.
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