Premiered a few short weeks after VE Day, Peter Grimes remains a troubling work: an opera whose hero is a violent man and whose villain is an intolerant society. Conformity, it suggests, is deadly. Morality something that is malleable. Guilt a matter of popular opinion. But is it? Willy Decker's compelling 1994 La Monnaie production of Britten's opera, now playing at Covent Garden, offers an intelligent appraisal of these issues while pointedly refraining from judgement. Gone are the lobster pots and rigging of the Suffolk shoreline. Instead we have the sharply raked abstracts of John Macfarlane's bleak sets, the stiff chairs of a Victorian chapel, a chorus in virtual uniform, and a Turner-meets-Bacon skyscape that reflects Britten's vivid orchestration of the water. No chintz. No humour. No mitigating seaside charm. No moral compass. Just a claustrophobic portrait of a society intoxicated by suspicion, a woman who dares to defy the consensus, a man accused of murder, and a young boy in mortal danger. But rarely have music and drama worked together so effectively in one production.
As Grimes, Ben Heppner redefines the sound of Britten's vocal writing; turning a role associated with the thin, mannered sound of English tenors into voluptuous, lyrical keening. His sound is rich and passionate, his diction clear, his movement startlingly deft despite his large frame. His is a vulnerable Grimes, a sympathetic Grimes, an almost seductive Grimes, and one whose relationship to Ellen Orford (Janice Watson) is more tender than is normally depicted. Watson's Ellen is similarly complex and developed: stooped by loneliness into premature old age, unbent into happiness by passing affection. But if Decker's characterisation of Grimes and Ellen is unusually detailed, his treatment of the remaining Borough residents is notable for its sinister lack of individuation. Though Alan Opie (Balstrode), Sarah Walker (Mrs Sedley), Ian Caley (Bob Boles), Anne Collins (Auntie) and the rest of the supporting cast are equally excellent in their roles, the other star of this production is the chorus.
For all the intensity of Decker's chorus direction and the magnificent theatricality of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano, Peter Grimes is still as much a Passion as it is an opera. For the High Priests, we have Boles and Mrs Sedley. For Pilate, we have Balstrode. For Mary Magdalene, Ellen. For the bloodthirsty crowd, the chorus. So the Christ figure here is a man who, at the very least, is guilty of violence towards children but is nonetheless depicted as a rough-hewn poet, a free spirit, a man of feeling. And this is the problem with Peter Grimes: so great is Britten's identification with the alienation Grimes suffers that the opera is incapable of addressing the subject of abuse and, consequently, incapable of giving its leading man the fair trial he cannot receive within his own community. As an exploration of moral confusion, Decker's production is perfect. But don't expect any easy answers.
For those fascinated by operas that time or taste forgot, the 2003/4 season has been particularly rewarding. First we had Opera North's clutch of obscure one-acters from Falla, Bizet and Rachmaninov, then two rarely-staged Tchaikovsky operas from Garsington and Grange Park. Now Glyndebourne has got in on the (double) act with Annabel Arden's jewel-like production of Rachmaninov's dirge-like, anti-Semitic anti-drama The Miserly Knight: a work that falls into the "justly neglected" category like a rotten apple hitting the ground. Indeed, a crate of the same might aptly be sent to Glyndebourne's music director Vladimir Jurowski, whose idea it first was to stage The Miserly Knight alongside Gianni Schicchi in a double-bill. Yes, I understand the thematic connection between the two works. Yes, I share the thrill of watching Sergei Leiferkus (Baron) take a role written for Chaliapin. Yes, I can even see the orchestral appeal of the score. But didn't Jurowski read the libretto? Suffice to say that if you've ever wondered how widespread casual anti-Semitism was in pogrom-era Russia, The Miserly Knight will tell you.
While I applaud Arden's brilliance in grafting a degree of subtlety, interest and depth to an unsubtle, boring, shallow drama, and warmly congratulate Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on their beautifully lugubrious account of the score, I have to say that if ever there were a case for Glyndebourne adopting Opera North's policy of individual ticketing for double-bills, this is it. Thankfully, Gianni Schicchi is as delicious as The Miserly Knight is indigestible. Firstly, Glyndebourne's ensemble cast is excellent. Secondly, Vicki Mortimer's sets are a total delight. Thirdly, Arden's direction combines the tightest classic farce discipline with a Weekend at Bernie's-style unhinged frat-pack energy: a blend beautifully encapsulated by Alessandro Corbelli's remarkable impersonation of Roberto Benigni in the title role. My advice? Pay the full price if you must. Sip your aperitifs slowly. Enjoy a very leisurely picnic. And slip in for the second half.
'Peter Grimes': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 16 July; 'The Miserly Knight'/'Gianni Schicchi': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), to 23 AugReuse content