Allen, Wyn-Rogers, Keeble; Oke, Kempster; Britten–Pears Orchestra, Opera North Chorus, Guildhall School Chorus, Bedford. Production: Albery. Arthaus 102 179, 141 mins. (opera), 20 mins (bonus), subtitled
One of the tentpole events of the wide-ranging celebrations marking the Britten centenary in 2013 was this production of Peter Grimes. A vast stage, shallow but long, was erected outdoors on the beach at Aldeburgh, the seaside town that was Britten's home for many years and remains the site of the festival he cofounded. Undoubtedly this was an indelible event for those fortunate few who were able to attend.
Sadly, instead of documenting the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and giving those of us at home a sense of what it was like to attend, this film makes the fatal mistake of trying to be a "realistic" performance of the opera. Yet the singers, seen mostly in close-ups, are all wearing headset microphones, like air traffic controllers, stuck in place by tape on the cheeks. Dusk obligingly starts to fall in time for the pub scene at sundown in Act I, but it's pitch dark outside by the sparkling Sunday-morning opening scene of Act II, and thereafter we can't even see the real ocean anymore. Having been given the gift of the extraordinary setting, video director Margaret Williams then throws it away, pasting in digital clouds over the real clouds in Act I, cutting away to canned footage of dawn for Act II and generally refusing to trust Tim Albery's stage production. Alan Oke's version of the Grimes soliloquy "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" is as fine as any ever sung, but Williams forces us to look at pre-recorded cloudscapes rather than the reactions of the characters who listen to it.
It's a paradox that the easy part of the equation, the glorious location of the production, should be bungled, while the hair-raisingly difficult aspect, the musical execution, is so fine. The singers were performing live to, of necessity, a prerecorded orchestral soundtrack, but the results in this rhythmically demanding music are excellent. Steuart Bedford, conducting an earlier concert version of the production, makes this score (now more of a repertory opera than Faust) seem taut and new-minted with his careful observation of Britten's markings such as "leggiero" and "spiritoso." Likewise, Oke is scrupulous in finding the motivations behind everything that Britten requested, but he doesn't neglect beautiful legato singing in such places as "We strained into the wind." Giselle Allen conveys the repressed but compassionate quality of Ellen, yet she's also a strong point of resistance to Grimes in their Act II scene, the dramatic fulcrum of the opera. In the large supporting cast, Catherine Wyn-Rogers is notable for the degree to which she gets across the text as Mrs. Sedley. Albery's production has the sweet idea of making Ellen a secret smoker. As is the fashion now, Ned Keene is played as a smarmy operator.
And yet, and yet…. We've all seen programs in which Impressionist paintings are paired with Impressionist music, to the detriment of both. The stunning revelation of this film is that Britten's sea music, paired with the actual sea and sky, suffers not a bit.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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