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S & H Opera Review

Britten, Peter Grimes, soloists, London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Barbican Hall, 12th January 2004 (MB)

One of the important principles surrounding Peter Grimes, and often forgotten, is that Britten wrote the score with certain voices in mind. This has sometimes created problems in subsequent performances of the work (the composer famously loathed Jon Vickers as Grimes, for example). But the effect can sometimes be quite radical; Vickers was an extraordinary vocal and physical presence who shunted the opera in to new, and different, psychological territory. Imogen Holst spoke of Peter Pears’ Grimes as "growing in stature until he was bearing the burden of all those other outcasts…". She was talking only of Act III; with Vickers this was a constant, unshifting characterisation throughout the opera.

Sir Colin Davis only partly succeeded, in these twin performances, in getting this right – with some notable exceptions – and that places his conception in different territory too. Being neither a mirror of Britten nor of his younger self, Davis falls between a rock and a hard place, and it can sometimes appear uncomfortable. What cannot be questioned is the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra – magnificent, sumptuous and perilously close to perfection – as they rip through the score with a cluster of sound Britten would have found astonishing. Those deeply burnished strings brought a hue of darkness to the most transparent moments (the sixth Interlude, for example, partly a depiction of Grimes’ growing madness, and here quite sinister in its coloration); in the third Interlude their playing was scorching, intense and quicksilver. Davis’ energy was astonishing.

Indeed, having this as a concert performance rather than a staged one brought dividends when it came to the orchestra. How often after the storm Interlude does a listener then hear the storm recalled through the orchestra when the scene shifts to the action inside The Boar? In this performance it was the epicentre of the action until the first act’s closing pages – a perfectly satisfactory outcome for this reviewer but I can see others might quibble with its impact being so divisive to events happening elsewhere.

Two moments shine out as being amongst the finest I have heard in any performance of this opera. The first was Grimes’ "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" aria sung with exceptional imagination and beauty of tone by Glenn Winslade. The complete antithesis of Vickers here, he came closer to recalling the mysteries of human grief, and the subliminal angst of vulnerability, than any other interpreter of the role in my experience. The middle register of his voice conveyed just the right degree of plangency making his Grimes a more touching anti-hero than is usually the case. Dynamics were remarkable. Perhaps for this very reason, his Act III monologue – disjointed utterances, unfathomable in their sense – seemed less jagged than they should. This Grimes seemed less mad, less raving and more a man who has already come to terms with his fate than is commonly perceived.

The second moment of greatness was the wonderful Quartet before the Passacaglia. Ellen, Auntie and her two nieces reflect on women’s relationships with men and it was stunningly done. Janice Watson – as Ellen – sung with purity of expression and Jill Groves – in a moving portrayal of Auntie – brought great wisdom to her singing. Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan as the nieces were flirty, but uncommonly close in timbre. All four shone through out the performance – a radical departure that had as much to do with them mirroring the glowing orchestral backdrop as it did Davis’ overall view of this opera as a warmer, more humane animal than it used to be seen as.

Not that this prevented Catherine Wyn-Rogers seizing every opportunity she was given to make her Mrs Sedley – odiously characterised – the upholder of intolerance and prejudice. With her flame-red hair, and with spectacles perched on the end of her nose, her impact seemed as much visual as it did vocal. Best of the rest, were Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Balstrode – nowhere better than in his scene with Ellen at the close of the opera – and Jonathan Lemalu’s Hobson – a small part, but so memorably sung.

The LSO Chorus took on the role of the Borough’s townspeople with an innate feeling for the tragedy that is about to unfold. The contrast between the opening chorus – deliberately conceived by Britten to add contrast to the drabness of the community against the coloration of the setting – and the closing chorus, with rampant shouts of "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" were handled superbly. The only dramaturgy was when they turned their backs to the audience as the hunt for Grimes began. At fortissimo, their vocalisation seemed congested, but for the most part they brayed and cajoled their way through Britten’s occasionally dense scoring admirably.

The lack of a libretto didn’t cause problems. The clarity of the diction was often very transparent, notably so in the Grimes of Winslade. But that was not really enough to convince me that his performance – despite being so beautifully sung in places – was other than a depiction of a fisherman who meekly accepts his fate. Perhaps on stage it would have been different.

Nor was there anything radical about Sir Colin Davis’ grasp of the score – if anything he seemed to actually make Britten’s opera rather "of its time". It impressed on the surface without really trying to scrape beneath it. Rather than the deep wounds that can make Grimes a powerfully relevant opera – even 60 years after it was written – this seemed a performance that saw nothing contemporary in it at all. On that level, it was disappointing and uncomfortable – but as a showpiece for the London Symphony Orchestra it proved, once again, that they are peerless.

Marc Bridle



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