A highlight of the centennial celebrations last year to mark the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was the series of "composite" performances in mid-June of perhaps his greatest work, Peter Grimes. These took place on a 40 yard stretch of the pebbled beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where the opera was actually set, and where Britten lived. "Composite" because the singers on the beach were accompanied by a (recently performed) recording of the orchestral score; and because the multi-camera film which is reviewed here also used sequences, most notably of the vast, grey East Anglian sky, to build a stunning, spell-binding, sumptuous staging which both works superbly on DVD and Blu-ray, and is completely faithful to Britten's conception of a music drama where human events are indeed set against a specific locality; but are first and foremost human events.
Given the cast and performers it's not surprising that this enterprise is such a success: any Grimes must stand in the shadow of Peter Pears, for whom the role was originally also conceived. Peter Grimes is an archetype too – of the outcast for whom we cannot but have some sympathy – as Britten wrote in 1948, "The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual". Alan Oke's voice has the gentle confidence and higher register that distinguished Pears' performances. Indeed, it's as close to Pears' own in timbre and register as any in recent years; yet comes nowhere close to mimicry, so distinctive was Pears throughout his career.
Oke's acting is a credible blend of self-confidence and doubt, of the hero's path to self-destruction. This is driven too by a determination to hold to his purpose if for no other reason than to clear his name and silence gossip. Each of the supporting singers projects well… exposes their character and in so doing expands (our understanding of) their place in the closed Borough community – conflict and all. The characters express varying degrees of frailty of spirit in the face of the massive forces that drive the opera. At the same time they each have a confidence which makes transparent and logical their interaction with events.
This interaction, these groups and huddles at various places across the set, and the carefully managed distances which separate protagonists, all serve persuasively to move things on at the pace which Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, envisaged. Stuart Bedford conducted the Britten-Pears Orchestra with great style; both in the recording at live performances at the Snape Maltings days earlier, and in the virtual pit between the shoreline set and the audience ranged higher up the strand looking out to sea. The sound quality is very good.
This staging of Peter Grimes is set in 1945 with costumes, hair styles and props from the very year in which the opera was first performed – at Sadler's Wells in London on 7 June, conducted by Reginald Goodall; it represented the rebirth of British opera after the War years. Although George Crabbe's poem, "The Borough", was written at the very start of the previous century, this adaptation works well if for no other reason than that such communities change little; and this one as late as the 1940s and 1950s tended to be almost as inward-looking as those of their C19th predecessors. To some (younger) listeners the "affected", stilted delivery, diction and idiom of mid-20th English may draw attention to itself. It's thus the challenge of the director now to render the text approachable. In this production, they have succeeded through everything from warmth and gesture to self-awareness and – again – development of archetypical character. Not least because of the stark, striking dramaturgy… the moment in Act I, for instance, when Grimes, high on a part of the set – evocative of an elongated breached fishing boat – begins his soliloquy, "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades".
The way in which the potentially rotting wood, slats, canvas, steps, sails, elegant scaffolds all do unfussy service as open beach, courthouse, as "The Boar" pub, as Grimes' hut and as a metaphorical collage of the indeterminate corners and semi-exposed localities of which the East Anglian coast is made. They do so very successfully. As the opera progresses, the light fails; but strategic sources of light (a brazier in The Boar), natural (the sky and weather) and functional (lanterns) add contrast and atmosphere both for the audience shivering on the beach; and for us watching the film… we have the added benefit of the short and unobtrusive sequences of the waves, sea, pebbles and foam: never overdone, yet integral to an understanding of Grimes' story.
At the same time, none of this is distracting in the least. The camera work (the whole was filmed over two nights and one four hour "pick up" day) does nothing except add to the dramatic impact in ways which happily place us there; fully affected by the tragedy. Britten's music loses nothing. It's front and center of our enjoyment all the time.
If you evaluate music films as lying somewhere along the spectrum between "straight captures" of performances, and "artworks" in their own right, it's easy and simple to place "Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach" because the event of which it was made an integral part last summer was itself a construction reaching out into the actual world of the opera's hero. As a result one is not taken aback by any artifice. Indeed, it's a pleasure to be drawn into the glances, asides, body language and groupings of the Borough folk and Grimes, who work together to destroy themselves perhaps (by association, intolerance, fanaticism) as much as the protagonist.
Ultimately, though, it's the quality of the music-making on which this recording must be judged. In this respect there's no question that the scenery, the expressions on the characters' faces, the sense of salt, the subdued colors, the intensity of the relationship between scandal, sand, sea and sky all support the essence of the musical drama. True, the most effective visual impressions are probably made when the crowd(s) of the Borough range themselves against Grimes (and Ellen) in the way that waves shoulder their way to shore. Grimes reacts by showing that he feels both threatened and defiant. This re-inforcement of Britten's amazing scoring can really only be made visually. You'll probably be aware of such tugging and towing even if you don't know the full Peter Grimes from the "Four Sea Interludes" extracted from it and often anthologized. And here – together with facial close-ups, grimaces, asides, sneers, flirtation and so on – we have as full an experience as possible, for there are also the longer, more panoramic sequences which the static member of an opera audience would have.
The booklet which comes with the DVD is maybe a little slimmer than you'd expect for such a product. There's little more than a scene-by-scene synopsis, an extract from Britten's introduction to Peter Grimes for the 1945 première and a page and a half by Margaret Williams on the way the filming worked. But this is a small point: the essence, beauty and all the strengths of Peter Grimes are presented unselfconsciously. The singing is excellent. The orchestral playing memorable and the dramatic portrayals of everyone involved highly compelling. Although Britten's own CD set from 1958 (Decca 4757713) must remain the first choice, this production can be suggested – alongside Langridge/Hickox (Chandos CHAN9447/8) and Vickers/Davis (Decca 4785273) – as a good supporting recording.
Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey