Flawed Heroes

Listed on January 2, 2014 in Blogs!

I should have spent the afternoon of New Year’s day going for a walk. Instead I plonked myself in front of the television and watched a new DVD of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. This was a recording of the special production filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh as part of last years 100th anniversary celebrations of Britten’s birth. Of course, this work is a masterpiece of music-drama. The music is fantastic, the characters complex and the dramatic tension intensified at every turn. Sadly this production and the film is a big disappointment. For a start this is a record of an extraordinary event – Peter Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh and yet no point were you aware of the audience or the fact that you were in Aldeburgh – you find this out in the ‘extras’. This was George Crabbe’s community of The Borough (albeit 180 years on) watching itself…so where were they? Indeed, the continuing resonance of Peter Grimes, performed now for over 60 years, is that it is a universal morality play about how the crowd deals with outsiders. The us and them question!

The other major incongruity was the production design itself. The set, like a broken timber promenade, was built across the top of the beach and thus allowed for the crucial hauling of the Grimes’s boat out of the water and, at the end of the opera, allowing for its launching again. For all of the outdoor realism this arrangement it didn’t work for the courtroom Prologue nor for the snug indoors of The Boar public house and its occupants sheltering from the storm. Indoors is indoors and no attempt was made at creating that at all. Similarly, the later Sunday Morning scene (outdoors) was filmed under stark artificial lighting when by this time total darkness had befallen the location. These and many other aspects of the production worked against the taut narrative of the plot. All of the time you felt it could have been done better. A semi-staged concert performance (in costume) might have been preferable – the players mirror-imaging the audience.

In case you were wondering, for practical reasons the orchestra was pre-recorded – as were the contribution of the chorus it seemed, although that was difficult to ascertain. The principal characters all sang live with those funny little microphones that sat on your cheek like a big boil. One of the strange aspects of this was that there was very little extraneous sound from moving about the set except for the deliberate occasional insertion of the sound of the waves on the shingle. The singing was excellent although Alan Oke’s Grimes didn’t have enough menace or threat for my money. He came across as an incompetent rather than a strong determined but ultimately frustrated individual. Compared to the relatively new La Scala production recorded live before an audience one can’t but conclude that this DVD is a bit of a dud.

And now back to Britten’s second great opera – Billy Budd. Our study day will be on Monday 17 February when we will be in the company of the fantastic 2010 Glyndebourne production, Jacques Imbrailo and John Mark Ainsley. No qualms there.