Peter Grimes, Opera North, On Tour
Whirlwind, Streetwise Opera, The Sage, Gateshead
Les Noces / Oedipus Rex, CBSO Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 05 November 2006
Phyllida Lloyd's production of Peter Grimes is an unnerving examination of communal hysteria. Where Britten romanticised the man who "chose from man to hide", Lloyd leaves the question of Grimes's guilt unanswered, instead focusing on the claustrophic hell of George Crabbe's embittered analogue for Aldeburgh, The Borough. That the setting is modern is immaterial. If the workhouse system has vanished, there are still parentless children who die in the care of those to whom their lives are entrusted, and still mobs to avenge them.
Anthony Ward's set is a bare space dressed with a simple series of salt-washed pallets (assembled and moved by the cast), a vast net, a stern cross, and the shadowy mass of Paule Constable's lighting. Every conversation in the Borough is observed, from behind the pallets or openly, while the glittering orchestral interludes, played with startling severity and lack of sentimentality under Richard Farnes's fleet beat, accompany a series of tableaux in which the villagers' rejection of Grimes and his apprentice becomes yet more brutal.
Instead of a star tenor and a supporting cast, Opera North has assembled an ensemble of equals, orchestra and chorus included. Indeed, for much of the opera Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's anti-hero is overshadowed by Christopher Purves's charismatic Balstrode and Roderick Williams's easy, sleazy Keene. Their characters and those of Auntie (Yvonne Howard), her brattish nieces (Amy Freston and Claire Booth), Methody Boles (Alan Oke) and the other villagers are clarified gradually. Only Mrs Sedley (Ethna Robinson) and Ellen Orford (Giselle Allen) have made up their minds about Grimes - one thinking the worst, the other hoping desperately for the best.
Allen's Ellen is tender and uninhibited, raptly sung, half-mother, half-lover, though Grimes retreats when her embraces become too intimate. Lloyd-Roberts contorts his body like a troubled child, though this rough manifestation of a barely-controlled temper fails to gel with his light, lyrical singing. Perhaps this is deliberate? Grimes the poet and Grimes the man are distinct, however badly Ellen wishes they might emulsify. His brutal punch to her empty womb is properly dismaying. The real violence, however, is that of the villagers. In Lloyd's brilliantly staged lynch-mob they press to the edge of the pit, stamping on an effigy of Grimes and gasping for breath in the pin-drop silences between each fanatical scream of his name.
At the close - in Lloyd's production, also the beginning - it remains uncertain who is responsible for the deaths of Peter Grimes's apprentices. Were they victims of communal neglect? Misfortune? Or, in librettist Montagu Slater's inspired euphemism, "Grimes's exercise"? Seen so soon after Jonathan Kent's seamless production of The Turn of the Screw - musically the superior work, yet one in which Britten lacks objectivity - Lloyd's production is especially powerful. How wonderful to have two such compelling touring productions of Britten's greatest operas in one season. And how disturbing that both leave luridly broken lives in their wake.
More maritime drama at the premiere of Will Todd's Whirlwind , which tells the story of a long-destroyed Devon fishing village through the words of its sole survivor, Lizzie May Prettyjohn (Heather Shipp). Though over-reliant on West End ballads and atmospheric noodling, Todd's two-part chorus writing is tight and vivid, provoking an impassioned performance from the homeless and ex-homeless cast of Streetwise Opera. Keith Warner's direction was clean and sharp, while Jason Southgate's designs had an impact of inverse proportion to his tiny budget. It is interesting that while Covent Garden and English National Opera unveil such ill-conceived commissions as Bird of Night and Gaddafi, hard-pressed companies such as Streetwise and Tête à Tête are more reliable midwives for new music theatre.
While Shostakovich has dominated the schedules of most British orchestras, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has been concentrating on Stravinsky. It's not every day one has to the chance to hear Les Noces played by Katia and Marielle Labèque, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Kirill Gerstein with Thomas Adès and the superb percussionists of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Alas, so overwhelming was the authentic quarter-tone caterwauling of the Pokrovsky Ensemble's vividly costumed folk singers that the four grand pianos might as well have been played by Bobby Crush, Richard Clayderman, Tara Palmer Tomkinson, and the late Les Dawson.
It could be that my seat was in one of those acoustic black holes that almost every concert hall has, for similar problems hampered my enjoyment of Sakari Oramo's performance of Oedipus Rex with the CBSO. Only Ekaterina Gubanova's electrifying Jocasta triumphed over the treble-heavy glare that obliterated Stravinsky's counterpoint. All those funky, crunchy twists of harmony in the bassoons disappeared, while the male chorus sounded as though they were singing from Ladywood. As the Listen Up! logo was on the programme and microphones were on stage, I hope a future Radio 3 broadcast might fill in the holes in what I heard.
* 'Peter Grimes', The Lowry, Salford (0870 787 5785), 8 and 11 Nov, then touring
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