A London Summer with Huntley Dent / Opera

Peter Grimes, Prom 55, London 2012

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Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes © 2012 BBC, Chris Christopoulous

Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten
Performed Friday, 24 August 2012 at The Royal Albert Hall.

Stuart Skelton, tenor – Peter Grimes
Amanda Roocroft, soprano – Ellen Orford
Iain Paterson, bass-baritone – Captain Balstrode
Rebecca de Pont Davies, mezzo-soprano – Auntie
Mark Richardson, baritone – Swallow
Leigh Melrose, baritone – Ned Keene
Michael Colvin, tenor – Bob Boles
Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano – Mrs Sedley
Gillian Ramm, soprano – First Niece
Mairéad Buicke, soprano – Second Niece
Darren Jeffery, bass-baritone – Hobson
Stuart Kale, tenor – Rev Horace Adams

ENO Chorus and Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor

Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.

Everything musical about the Proms performance was splendid, including a near-great Stuart Skelton in the title role, but the opera is a kind of English Wozzeck by the sea that strangely wants to play nice. Howling anguish alternates with chirpy village tattling, the smell of fish with whiffs of psychpathia sexualis.

The brooding fisherman Peter Grimes winds up as mad as Berg’s tortured anti-hero, but he isn’t driven over the edge by sadistic loonies. The close-minded villagers who shun him have good reason to, after Grimes returns home from an ordinary day’s fishing with a dead boy apprentice on board. Inarticulate and isolated, Grimes offers no better explanation than mumbling, “He just died.” Two hours later, after a second apprentice slips off a cliff to his death, we still can’t figure out who Grimes is. This gives singers wide artistic license, and two great tenors, Peter Pears and Jon Vickers, took full advantage of Grimes’s ambiguous poise between dreamer and brute. The fact that he sings to the stars doesn’t keep him from roughing up his cowering apprentice.

Was Grimes ever meant to be understandable? Pears created the role in 1945, and the excerpts he recorded for EMI in 1948 are hair-raising as Grimes shouts his demented soliloquy before committing suicide. Ten years later, when he made a stereo recording of the entire opera for Decca, Pears bore much less resemblance to Wozzeck; there’s a marked absence of inner torment. It’s as if his shy, poetic Grimes can relate only to his captive boys, protecting and abusing them at the same time, and their doom is symbolic of the doom faced by any man who is attracted, however innocently, to youths – this was a problem that Britten himself wrestled with in his personal life. On a simple social level, Pears sings with an upper-crust accent quite foreign to an illiterate fisherman. It signals a hint of natural nobility, which became the general thrust of Pears’s interpretation.

Later performers saw the role more grimly as a half-crazy misfit, torn by his inability to resist violence, while fighting his inner demons in the hope that he can win the kindly widow Ellen Orford. Their love fails when Ellen sees a bruise on the mute apprentice’s neck; in one stroke she recognizes that Grimes cannot bee redeemed. Jon Vickers was the epitome of naked existential anguish. He made a real stab at turning Grimes into Wozzeck – and the composer hated it (he famously walked out of a Vickers performance). But whether Britten was offended, shocked, or simply didn’t want his cards put on the table, Vickers liberated the character and dragged him into the modernist era.

In both the CD and DVD depictions, Vickers is un-English to the core. Nothing needs to be suggested: it’s all written in naked suffering. Every Grimes since then has sung in Vickers’ shadow, and on that score Stuart Skelton made for a towering vocal presence, his Wagnerian-sized voice vying with his great forebear. Skelton’s broad, blocky build exuded physical force (one critic said that he had a poet’s soul and a thug’s body), but tenors are a lot more used to winning the girl than losing the boy. Skelton fell prey to the temptation to seem nicer than the character actually is. There wasn’t enough pain or rage in his portrayal, but never mind. The heroic ring of his voice shook the sleeping seagulls awake in the rafters of Albert Hall.

The popular soprano Amanda Roocroft sang a sympathetic Ellen Orford, even if her voice and projection were subdued. All the villagers formed an impressive ensemble, and the ENO chorus pressed down on Grimes with real fury, like harpies and whatever you call male harpies (surely not harpists). Next to Skelton’s vocalism, the greatest pleasure of the evening came from hearing Britten’s brilliant orchestral score lifted from the opera pit to center stage, where it proved so riveting that the singers could have passed the time knitting socks and repairing torn seine nets.

Although we didn’t have sets to give us a full picture, the director’s conception was to update Grimes to 1945, the year of the opera’s premiere. The exhausted screwiness of the time needed more edge, hence the zoot suits of several quasi-criminal types and an innkeeper who must have gone to get her crisp, mannish hair cut in Berlin (the director, David Alden, is an American, known for shockeroo touches in staging Britten). One decision in the staging was wise: the apprentice assigned to Grimes after the first one dies was made older, a teen-ager, whose scream when he fell to his death wasn’t the usual high-pitched child’s shriek. A small but telling change, since it removed the unsavory hint of pedophilia, never intended in the libretto, that keeps being hauled up by biographers who started peeking under the bed after Britten’s death. I doubt that Grimes will ever escape ambiguity. Wrapping a shredded soul in comfy Englishness could never work, any more than swaddling shrapnel in a tea cozy.

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