Wednesday 23 March 2022

Peter Grimes at the Royal, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

 This production has garnered pretty much universally high praise. In advance I was sceptical, having not been wholly convinced by Deborah Warner's Billy Budd for the House back in 2019. From my vantage point in the Amphitheatre I thought the production strengthened as the evening went on, but despite some fine individual performances it never gripped me with the emotional intensity of either the Snape Maltings concert/Grimes on the Beach experience or the Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival.

The main reason for this is a production which can't decide between abstract or realist approaches. The contrast shows up between the Prologue and Scene 1. The Prologue plays out on a bare stage. Grimes (Allan Clayton) appears to be almost dreaming it. Nearly the only light comes from the electric torches everybody is holding (from the Amphi much of Act 1 is too dark generally, though this is rectified in the later Acts). Scene 1 by contrast is a rather cluttered fishing market set-up, with a low wall which did remind me of Aldeburgh. We never get back to quite the spareness of the Prologue but the show has an uneasy feeling of being caught between those two approaches. For me it thus never fully achieved immersed me in its world. Elements of geographical confusion - particularly as to where Warner imagines the sea to be (in Act 1 it could be in at least three directions) - also do not help.

Warner's approach to the Prologue is also flawed in another respect. She plays it very much as if Grimes is already mad. This causes problems for dramatic tension as the show goes forward - if we're already shown Grimes as mad from the outset there isn't far enough for the character to go in the body of the opera. If the rest of the staging had been played more abstract, or there was more of a sense that we are reliving the story through Grimes it might have worked, but as already noted this isn't how Warner proceeds.

As with Warner's Billy Budd there is no movement director credited, and the movement is similarly uneven. Contrary to others I rarely felt the massed chorus as threatening in the way they have to be. There are several reasons for this. As with her Billy Budd the stage is often too open when we need a claustrophobic environment. But the bigger issue is Warner overeggs things at key points - the injury to Ellen Orford (Maria Bengtsson) in Act II Scene 1 and to my mind more seriously the insistence on giving the mob guns in Act 3 (which never get fired) and having them beat a dummy on a pole to the floor in time with several of those shattering "Grimes!" chords - in both cases for me these effects diminished rather than emphasised the feeling of threat. The moment that most genuinely chilled me in the whole evening was the chorus's denunciation of Ellen for "leading us a dance" - the movement as they surround her is much more understated and consequently far more threatening. Elsewhere there were too many individual moments when I was puzzled by movement choices - the most glaring is the bizarre decision to have Balstrode (Bryn Terfel) send Ellen off-stage in the middle of Act Two Scene 1, through the mob who have just been assaulting her. I don't recall other productions sending Ellen off-stage at that moment and it doesn't make much sense to do so because you then have to bring her back almost immediately for the quartet of the women. My feeling is that quartet is expressing their commonality of experience so it also didn't make sense to me that none of the other three are allowed to go near Ellen during it, particularly weird given she is in evident physical distress following Grimes's assault.

There are strong moments. The opening of Act Two is the best section of the piece - Ellen's interaction with the apprentice and her confrontation with Grimes are powerfully done (though the litter pickers who intrude towards the end are superfluous). There's also much to commend in Grimes's mad scene. But the show never fully gripped me emotionally.

Musically the highlight of the evening is unquestionably Clayton's Grimes. I don't think I have ever heard that mad scene sung live with that combination of power, beauty and feeling. He's also powerfully moving in his scenes with Ellen and with the apprentice in Act Two. I was more doubtful about the other two leads. Bengtsson sings with great beauty and, as already noted, is a fine actress, but I wanted a little more power to cut through the texture in places in Act One, and her diction could be strengthened (her performance didn't erase memories of the late, great Erin Wall in Edinburgh). Previously I've always found Balstrode a moving, sympathetic character, but Bryn Terfel/Warner's reading here seems to push against this. From where I was sitting he finds less subtlety in his interactions with Grimes and Orford than either the Aldeburgh or Edinburgh singers did, and there are some particular missteps - I didn't believe Balstrode would join in the dancing in the pub - he's a character more apart than this - and the handling of his exit after saying he'll help Peter sink the boat is unsatisfactory.

The supporting roles are in the main very well taken. There's particularly fine character work from Jacques Imbrailo as Ned Keene and James Gilchrist as the Reverend. The four women blend finely in the quartet. Moving John Tomlinson's Swallow up the curtain call pecking order from where the character would normally feature is, shall we say, generous. 

The chorus sing well, but as a rule didn't shatter me as their counterparts at Snape and Edinburgh did (but in both cases those singers were working with superior acoustics). The orchestra plays very finely, but I wasn't quite as convinced by Mark Elder's conducting as I had expected to be. He takes to my ear a more spacious approach than Gardner in Edinburgh. Looking back I find that I had a similar issue with Ivor Bolton's conducting of Warner's Billy Budd. There's no question there's both beauty and power, but just occasionally I wanted a bit more drive. Again, it didn't take me in a grip in the way that both Steuart Bedford and Edward Gardner did. One thing that may also have been a factor here, though, is Warner's fussy approach to the interludes - I would dispense with all the projected text "Interlude I" and so on, and the lighting effects and just play them to a black curtain - everything needed is in the music - the additional images are a distraction.

As I was leaving the auditorium an audience member in front of me remarked to his companion that the production was one for Remainers. I don't think Warner's interpretation is quite that overt, but the shadow of facets of Brexit is certainly present - especially in the Act 3 mob scene. But I've been pondering the remark since and I think it may get at the reasons why the production didn't fundamentally work for me. There are two aspects here. First, the familiarity of the environment. I feel I've seen a lot of theatre set in these kinds of decayed urban spaces since the Brexit vote and I'm unconvinced that Warner finds anything fresh to say about this kind of place. Secondly I'm doubtful that a Brexit environment is an effective lens through which to read this work. If Grimes were being sung by a singer of colour, of had a non-English accent, if the libretto was not so explicit about him being a native of the town then it might fit better - but none of those things apply here. This may explain why the assault on Ellen, whose English is accented, came across to me as more telling. When you add to this the fact that the production, to my eyes, is so explicit about both Grimes's madness and his violence I think it makes it further difficult to read the mob's attitude to him as the product of wider dissatisfactions - their terrible behaviour is explicable in terms of how this individual is portrayed.

Down in the stalls at this performance my parents were much warmer in their reaction. Maybe I was tired, maybe I've got more fussy post-pandemic in a context where theatregoing still has an increased stress. I can only say that, whatever the reason, compared to the previous live performances I found myself often at an emotional distance, arguing with the show, rather than compelled to attend.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It's difficult to get past the extraordinary Usher Hall performance - though of course they had the benefit of (literally) nothing getting in the way of the music.
Grimes on the beach was a one off experience though I am struggling to remember many details!
We enjoyed this production with no weak points musically - quite the reverse.
Warner may have dropped some elements as the run continued - we didn't spot any guns and the union flag did not make an appearance.
Other than the over the top bashing of the dummy I thought the ambiguity of the crowd was made clearer than I recall noticing before. The pub scene was relatively good natured, they are (in this production unlikely) churchgoers, and good naturedly wishing each other good night just before it all kicks off.
Leaving aside the anachronism of the boy apprentice - I was expecting a bit more made of modern slavery - the crowd as expressed by Boles is against such exploitation. Hobson only agrees to carry him after Ellen's intervention. In fact she has a lot to answer for - inc his plan to pursue money making solo fishing made possible only by the exploitation of apprentices.
The most arbitrary aspect of the whole opera is the death of the second apprentice of course.
Still this idea so many people have of Grimes being pursued for being an "outsider" is seriously wrong. After all, TWO BOYS HAVE DIED!

Post a Comment