Peter Grimes, Covent Garden

For in
this reading, it is Britten’s powerful choruses which really excite and
dominate: a frightening embodiment of Victorian moral hypocrisy and
viciousness, the grey-costumed mob ebb and flow, an amorphous mass exerting an
oppressive and irresistible moral force.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this reading, for
Britten’s opera contains astonishingly virtuosic ensembles which erupt in
Verdian climaxes. Think of the intricate polyrhythms of the shanty, ‘Old
Joe has gone fishing’, where the lop-sided 7/4 tempo aptly conveys the
community’s struggle both to resist the storm raging outside the tavern
and to quell the disturbances caused by Grimes’ presence within. However,
something of the rich diversity of the community, and thus of the opera’s
colour palette, is lost. At times, the stage seems over-populated and the
incessant movement can be messy and distracting; and, it’s hard for the
colourful cast of minor roles to emerge with clarity from the crowd. Even in
the Prologue, when Grimes is called to account for the apprentice’s
death, Matthew Best’s Swallow struggled to contain the baying throng and
to assert his authority despite his well-focused voice and confident stage

PETER-GRIMES.110615_0484.gifJane Henschel as Mrs Sedley

Some of the cast did manage to rise above the multitudes. Roderick Williams
was an engaging Ned Keene, his warm tone and lyricism often suggesting a less
antagonistic attitude towards Grimes – a much needed counterpoint to the
pack’s pitiless cruelty. Martyn Hill’s Rector came effectively to
the fore without strain, while Balstrode’s sincerity and authority was
well captured by Jonathan Summers. Although Decker’s Mrs Sedley lapses
into caricature, Jane Henschel cleverly suggested the latent power she exerts;
seated stony-faced at the front of the stage, impervious to the taunts and
ridicule of the drinkers in the tavern scene, she later becomes the driving
force behind the persecution, leading the community in the unquestioning
conformity. Moreover, in an unusually striking presentation of these minor
female roles, Auntie (Catherine Wyn-Rodgers) and her two Nieces (Rebecca
Bottone and Anna Devin) provided a welcome splash of visual and vocal colour in
the tavern scene.

Amanda Roocroft tried hard to inject some warmth and tenderness into what is
a rather severe interpretation of Ellen Orford, the village school mistress who
yearns to save Grimes from the Borough’s tyranny and from his own inner
demons. In a typically strong characterisation, Roocroft was imposing in the
face of the community’s onslaught and criticism, using lyricism to oppose
their callousness. However, dramatic strength was sometimes achieved at the
expense of clear diction and musical accuracy, and an overly wide vibrato at
times resulted in a slightly unfocused tone.

PETER-GRIMES.110615_0090.gifPrologue, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes

But, the real problem with this production is that the fate of its
protagonist is never in doubt. There is not ‘conflict’ so much,
between the outsider and the community, as total alienation. Estranged and
unapproachable from the start, distressingly obsessed with the child’s
coffin when Ellen tries to call him away, this Grimes is totally isolated and
impossible to ‘save’: in Act 3 he simply covers his head (mimicking
his apprentice’s earlier gesture of fear) when Ellen and Balstrode
attempt to reach out to him. However, the libretto avows his intent to earn
enough money to marry Ellen – he wants to win her respect and not just
her pity – and to win acceptance by the community: and, it is hard to
believe in this declaration or to understand why anyone would want acceptance
from this community.

Ben Heppner certainly conveyed Peter Grimes’ existential despair. He
is clearly a victim, and his obvious guilt and remorse should earn our
forgiveness. Yet even during his visionary soliloquies and angry
counter-attacks, Heppner struggled to retain his place at the centre of the
audience’s vision. Moreover, there were major vocal concerns. His duet
with Ellen in the Prologue was marred by poor tuning and frequently, as in
‘What harbour shelters peace?’ where the soaring minor ninths
recall the tentative optimism and yearning of the Prologue duet, the voice
sounded gravelly and strained. Short fragmented phrases and a rough-hewn
quality created a sense of breathlessness and unease, but there was no sense of
Grimes’ inner lyricism.

PG.110615_0018.gif(Left to Right) Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley, Roderick Williams as Ned Keene, Matthew Best as Swallow, Alan Oke as Bob Boles, Stephen Richardson as Hobson, Martyn Hill as Rector, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes

So many of Grimes’ numbers, originally designed to suit and enhance
the vocal characteristics of Peter Pears, are mercilessly exposed; and in
‘The Great Bear’ Heppner could not control the floating head voice
required. The descending scales, which convey the futility of Grimes’
hopes that he will turn the skies back and ‘begin again’, were
woefully flat. Since so much of the drama is conveyed through harmonic
conflicts and relationships, this was both musically dissatisfying and
disrupted the dramatic arguments of the work.

These five performances at Covent Garden are dedicated to three recently
deceased tenors, each of whom has stamped their own identity on a role defined
for so long by Pears: Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Robert Tear.
Neither Decker nor Heppner present us with a Grimes to challenge these
forebears. Decker’s Grimes does not even look like a fisherman! More
importantly, in this opera so much depends on ambiguity (‘perhaps
you’re not to blame that the boy died’, says Balstrode): we look in
horror but we understand, we shudder but forgive, and this delicate balance
between opposing forces – dramatic and musical – needs to be
sustained. Decker’s vision is powerful in its clarity but loses the
dramatic tension that such ambiguity bestows.

Finally, it is a vigorously anti-religious production, a reading that is
perfectly justified by the text and complements the Victorian updating. But, of
Britten’s desire “to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle
of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea”, there is little
acknowledgement – apart from some Turner-esque backdrops. As the curtain
rises in Act 1, the orchestra paints a picture of the dawn labours of a
community dependent on the sea: ripples in the clarinet depict the glitter of
the rising sun on the tossing waves; a high, ornamented melody recreates the
dips and dives of a soaring gull; surges in the brass announce the
ocean’s threatening undercurrents. The chorus sing of the duties which
draw the fishing families together in hardship, perseverance and solidarity.
Decker presents us with a church congregation, literally singing from the same
hymn sheet – but the rhythms are those to accompany the hauling of nets
and the tugging of sails. Although this dramatic motif returns in a powerful
gesture in the closing moments of the opera – as, defeated, Ellen
reluctantly takes her place among the worshippers, covering her face with the
hymn sheet, to erase her identity and resistance – it sits awkwardly with
the musical drama.

PETER-GRIMES.110615_0234.gif(Left to Right) Alan Oke as Bob Boles, Jonathan Summers as Balstrode, Anna Devin as Second Neice, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes, Rebecca Bottone as First Neice, Roderick Williams as Ned Keene, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Auntie

John Macfarlane’s set is visually impressive; steeply raked walls and
a tilted stage increasing the sense of claustrophobia and repressed chaos. And,
conductor Andrew Davis certainly drives the pace incessantly forward with a
real sense of urgency and passion, even if he does not always achieve the
required fullness of texture and depth of resonance. But ultimately there are
too many compromises, and the cast, especially Heppner, are not quite strong
enough to make Decker’s vision convincing.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]
product_title=Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
product_by=Peter Grimes: Ben Heppner; Ellen Orford: Amanda Roocroft; Captain Balstrode: Jonathan Summers; Ned Keene: Roderick Williams; Mrs Sedley: Jane Henschel; The Rector: Martyn Hill; Auntie: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Her Nieces: Rebecca Bottone, Anna Devin: Swallow: Matthew Best; Hobson: Stephen Richardson. Dr Crabbe: Walter Hall; Apprentice boy: Patrick Curtis. Director: Willy Decker. Conductor: Andrew Davis. Revival Director: FranÁois de Carpentries. Designs: John Macfarlane. Lighting Design: David Finn. Choreography: Athol Farmer. Revival Choreographer: Ruth Moss. Royal Opera House, London, Tuesday 21st June, 2011.
product_id=Above: Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera