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Saturday 25 June 2011

Peter Grimes

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Britten's opera Peter Grimes is one of the most moving in the repertory, and despite the fact that it was his first attempt at a full scale opera, and it certainly has its crudities and problems, it has since its first performance been universally recognised for what it is: a masterpiece. It's a work that requires no explanation or commentary almost - the message is so clear, the drama so brilliantly drawn, the music so perfectly wrought that it is its own explanation - and so I won't try to provide one.

This production by Willy Deckers (revival direction by Francois de Carpentries) strips the work of overt references to small town life, englishness and the sea, the intention being to focus on the extraordinary psychological power of the work and make the crowd versus individual theme more abstract and universal. The stark chiaroscuro of the set seems rooted in the dense atmosphere of the score and though this production veers perhaps a little close to Regie tropes for comfort (enormous diagonally painted panels), supported by the superb lighting it works very well at what it tries to achieve. Choreography of crowd scenes is often very impressive and as a concept the whole thing is well thought out and executed.

But actually this stripping away of context I think vitiates the drama - the oppressive small minded village hysteria simply becomes hateful mob antics which I found far less disturbing than Britten's original vision: lots of individuals, normal but with their own puculiarities, are galvinised and united by their hatred of a single man. In this production the townspeople aren't established as "normal" so their rejection and persecution of Grimes and Ellen Orford isn't so jarring - they just all seem like unequivocal badies from the start. This was also the cause of another problem: it took quite a while for the individual character portraits of the towns people to come through too - not until Act II did they really establish themselves.

Still, this production is powerful in its obvious way and I found myself extremely moved several times during the evening. Unfortunately almost none of the singers were up to the vocal demands of their roles. The exceptions were Matthew Best who made a powerful and commanding Swallow in the prologue and Jonathan Summers as Balstrode who sung beautifully here (and I was very pleased with myself for recognising his voice from the Grimes excerpt on the a CD of opera scenes which Renée Fleming made in 1997). Catherine Wyn-Rogers as auntie and her nieces all acted very well and sung mostly well, though the quartet with Ellen Orford From the gutter strained them all. Jane Henschel is a fantastic character mezzo and was really horrible as Mrs. Sedley. Martyn Hill can't actually sing it seems, he just bellowed through his lines as the Reverend Horace Adams, but he was still good and made a horrifying rector.

Vocally the real problems were the two leads though. Ellen Orford's music is extraordinarily beautiful in this opera, and requires an extremely good lyric soprano to do it justice. Amanda Roocroft is a magnificent actress as we've seen in her assumption of the Janacek heroines at ENO, but unfortunately vocal problems persist. She once had an extremely beautiful full lyric voice, and while it remains this in the warm middle voice, the top is strident and metallic, rather than blooming and full. The quiet top B flat in the Embroidery aria wasn't even attempted, instead she just stopped halfway through the interval and sang the line from where she stopped. Ben Heppner is well past his prime, and is completely beset by vocal problems - he can't sing quietly, all wide intervals are heavily scooped into, everywhere there are tuning issues, the top is extremely strained, the line bulges as he applies force about half a second into each note. Apparently he's doing Tristan with Stemme next month at the Bayerische Staatsoper - something to dread.

I usually can't stand singers who aren't up to scratch technically. But I forgive this production's extreme vocal shortcomings (some of the worst this season) because it did something that few other shows at the ROH did this year: it moved me. The acting from both leads, especially Roocroft, was so engaging, realistic and touching that I didn't at all mind that they couldn't sing the music as Britten intended. This was a thrilling piece of drama, I felt involved, I cared about the characters. Compare this to Butterfly also on at the ROH at the moment - vocally so much more accomplished, but a dreary, shallow affair.

The ROH orchestra, lead by Andrew Davis, seemed tentative to begin with, but warmed up throughout and gave a very good performance of this score. I wanted a bit more warmth and body sometimes, and occasionally Davis' conducting felt closer to efficient rather than inspired, but the overall result was emotionally arresting and true to the spirit of the score.

So, far from a definitive performance of this masterpiece, but certainly a very good one and one of the best things on offer in London this summer.

As an aside, the Renée Fleming album that I mentioned has an extraordinary recording of Ellen's Embroidery in Childhood aria on it, and makes me wish that the Met would release an archival recording of her sole assumption of this role - a voice of such liquid beauty singing this role would be such a welcome addition to the recording catalogue of Peter Grimes - the Were we mistaken duet at the start of the second act, or to hear Fleming's commanding power in Let her amongst you would be such a thrill. Are you reading this the Met? Get on it.

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