Albery's site-specific staging of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach
© Robert Workman 2013
The small East Anglian coastal town of Aldeburgh, Benjamin Britten's home for most of his life, has no substantial theater, nor is there one in the county of Suffolk as a whole. Snape Maltings — the concert hall Britten built nearby — is capable of hosting relatively small-scale productions, but a fully staged Peter Grimes is effectively out of the question there, too. Thus it was that for this year's Britten centenary event, the Aldeburgh Festival commissioned a special, al fresco, site-specific staging, which opened on Aldeburgh Beach for the first of three performances on June 17.
Such enterprises inevitably throw up problems, though many of them had been carefully thought through and were successfully circumnavigated. At the opening of the festival, two concert performances were given at the Maltings by the same company. The Britten–Pears Orchestra's contribution, as well as that of the large chorus — drawn partly from Opera North in Leeds, partly from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London — were recorded and fed into the overall sound picture of the open-air event; in addition, the chorus sang live on the night. The principals were all live but miked. Veteran conductor Steuart Bedford, a long-term associate of Britten's, was positioned in a dugout on the beach, holding the performance together with remarkable accomplishment given the logistical difficulties.
Tim Albery's realistic staging played on a substantial wooden platform erected on the shingle in front of the town with the dark colors of the North Sea and Aldeburgh's distinctly mutable sky looming in the background. Leslie Travers's set consisted largely of fishing boats, an upturned one representing Grimes's hut and the rest standing in for other local buildings. Lucy Carter lit the whole production with vivid and imaginative touches, though the smell and sound of the nearby sea and the constant breeze sweeping over stage and audience proved even more atmospheric. As the evening got darker — the performance began at 8:30 P.M., about an hour before sunset — the audience's concentration on the drama became ever more focused.
Some detail was inevitably lost: facial expressions scarcely registered, and the sound-system provided a fairly rough-and-ready version of the score, the individual performers' expressive vocal intentions frequently getting swallowed up in the overall impact; that, though, proved considerable, given the sheer commitment of the chorus and that of the principals.
Versatile tenor Alan Oke sang his first Grimes in the Aldeburgh concert performance and this subsequent staging, presenting a psychologically dark and obviously troubled outsider figure; hurling his voice at the role, he gave the vocal line a strong profile and a fierce sense of direction. Giselle Allen's Ellen Orford was physically sensitive while vocally warm and tender. David Kempster was the traditionally bluff Captain Balstrode. The secondary roles — Henry Waddington's pompous Swallow, Gaynor Keeble's game Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rogers's querulous Mrs. Sedley, Robert Murray's hectoring Bob Boles and Charles Rice's Ned Keene — were all drawn with sharp purpose. Not surprisingly, however, it was the setting that was the star on this occasion. To hear this first of Britten's masterpieces against the natural backdrop where he — like Grimes himself — was rooted was an unforgettable experience for those who witnessed it.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.