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S & H International Opera Review

Villains and Victims I: Peter Grimes at Finnish National Opera, 29th December 2003 (BK)



The inspired programming that allowed Finnish National Opera to give Britten’s Peter Grimes and Janácek’s Katya Kabanova on consecutive nights last week, offered much more than the opportunity to contrast plots in which victimisation and villainy are shared themes. By intention or by good fortune, the juxtaposition of Sakari Oramo (a conductor with little operatic experience so far) and Jirí Belohlávek (an acknowledged expert in the field, especially for Janácek) added something special to both performances. Each turned out to be masterly, though in rather different ways.

Oramo gave some concert performances of Grimes in Birmingham in 2001 which were well received at the time. If I remember rightly, honours were shared equally by the singers (including John Daszak as Grimes and Yvonne Kenny as Ellen Orford) by the CBSO and its chorus and by Oramo himself. It was ‘English’ opera of a very high standard.

Although the current FNO production is a revival first staged by David Radok in 1998, it also marks Oramo’s debut in the house. What was obvious from the outset was that his reading of the score has deepened considerably in the past two years and the word that springs most readily to mind to characterise it now, would be ‘savagery.’ A sense of the crowd’s raw hostility towards Grimes is evident from the very first bars of the Inquest scene and is sustained throughout the whole work. Remarkably however, the expression of violence is never allowed to detract from the sheer beauty of Britten’s music: both are always apparent and as well balanced as two sides of an unbiased coin.

One further and particularly striking aspect of Oramo’s direction that really needs mentioning, is his un-erring commitment to clarity in the denser sections of Britten’s writing. This is especially noticeable in the choral singing: just for once all the words in Old Joe has gone fishing for example, can be heard equally well from both solo and choral voices. It is quite an achievement to pull this off and unfortunately one too rare these days.

David Radok’s production (reinterpreted by Rauno Marttinen for the current performances, and ably backed up by Tazeena Firth’s set and costume designs and some marvellous lighting by Kimmo Ruskela) is naturalistic and free from obscure symbolism. His point of view is straightforward enough: any kind of perceived ‘difference’ marking out an individual from the crowd leads to suspicion and mistrust of that individual. If the individual oversteps some arbitrary boundary for conventional behaviour, mistrust can turn quickly into hypocritical violence because crowd judgment is arbitrary and too easily overlooks the imperfections of those seen to ‘fit in.’ This, Radok says, is the curse of human nature.

Within this context, Jorma Silvasti plays Grimes as an affectionless man given to physical violence but perhaps no more so than other apprentice masters of his time. This Grimes is neither saint nor poetic visionary but he may not be much of a sinner either. The apprentices’ deaths really could be accidental and Balstrode (Juha Uusitalo) is the uncomplicated pragmatist who can see this while remaining clear about Grimes’ worsening situation. Raili Viljakainen’s Ellen cares about Grimes enough to help him when she can, but seems not to be drawn to him especially romantically. It is the crowd’s psychology rather than that of individuals which is explored in this production, and this makes a refreshing change, some might think.

With the exception of Juha Uusitalo who was in good voice (and with quite outstanding diction) from the outset most of the principals took a little while to warm up. Hannu Forsberg as Swallow was not on his best form during the Inquest scene but had gained full command by Act II. Jorma Silvasti’s high Es sounded distinctly baritonal during ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’ but by the end of Act III he produced wonderful tenor tone to give one of the most moving performances of Grimes’ descent into madness I have ever heard. Raili Viljakainen was a concerned and convincing Ellen Orford and Anna-Lisa Jakobsson, a spirited Auntie. Together with Anu Komsi and Tuija Knihtilä as Auntie’s ‘nieces,’ they made the 6/8 ‘trio’ at the end of the first scene of Act II into music of great lyric beauty.

Having had experience of FNO’s abilities over some years now, my expectation of this production was that it would be perfectly adequate and never less than wholly professional. What I hadn’t reckoned with however was the extraordinary authority that Sakari Oramo now brings to this most English of operas. This was inspired conducting on his part which brought out the best from everyone who participated, including the remarkable FNO chorus and orchestra. Oramo really must be urged to fit more opera into his busy schedules with the CBSO and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra if he possibly can. He’s extremely good at it.

Bill Kenny

Production Details

Conductor: Sakari Oramo
Production 1998: David Radok
Direction 2003: Rauno Marttinen
Set and Costume Designs: Tazeena Firth
Lighting: Kimmo Ruskela

Photos courtesy of Finnish National Opera.


Peter Grimes : Jorma Silvasti
John, the new apprentice: Errki Koskimäki
Ellen Orford: Raili Viljakainen
Captain Balstrode: Juha Uusitalo
Auntie: Anna-Lisa Jakobsson
Niece 1: Anu Komsi
Niece 2: Tuija Knihtilä
Bob Boles: Pertti Mäkelä
Swallow: Hannu Forsberg
Mrs. Sedley: Eeva-Liisa Saarinen
Pastor Adams: Ilkka Hämäläinen

Ned Keane: Jarmo Ojala
Hobson: Jaako Hietikko
Dr. Thorp: Tapio Leppänen

Viola Soloist (Passacaglia) : Sirpa Juvonen

Chorus and Orchestra of Finnish National Opera.
Finnish Surtitles : Leena Vallisaari



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