Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2012
Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitah, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson, Francesco Malvuccio
The main strength of Britten's Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character. That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera. One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work. The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones. In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work. With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that's exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer's centenary year.
The principal theme of Peter Grimes is one that underlies much of Britten's work and is evidently one that has significance and meaning for the composer himself - the corruption of innocence. That theme is developed in a much wider context however here in Britten's first fully orchestrated opera than it is, for example, in The Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd. At the same time, Peter Grimes itself is a much more intimate and personal case, since it takes in the circumstances of individual identity that is corrupted by the nature of the wider society in which it struggles to exist. This is a society where money is respected and where what is deemed respectable behaviour is determined by the nasty, narrow-minded parochialism, wagging tongues, gossip and pointing the finger at others.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? You don't have to look far beyond the headlines of today's Daily Mail to see that those attitudes persist and are not confined to small English seaside towns. Based on a poem by George Crabbe called 'The Borough', I'm sure that's exactly what Benjamin Britten wanted to get across. An unconventional outsider, himself the subject of gossip, rumours and attacks in the press, living at the time in California with his partner Peter Pears as a conscientious objector against the war, this was a subject that was close to the composer's heart. Britten's approach to the work is consequently all the more daring and challenging for Peter Grimes not in any way being painted as sympathetic character, but he's certainly preferable to the vicious, prejudiced mob who hound him for his inability to behave in any conventional manner.
Who is really to blame for what happens to the fisherman's apprentices? By today's standards Grimes would hardly meet regulations governing health and safety or child employment legislation and social services would undoubtedly have something to say about allowing children to be in close contact with such an individual. Ultimately however the pressures placed on Grimes that drive him to make mistakes are those of social acceptance. He may want to marry Ellen Orford, but he needs to earn enough money to make that alliance worthy in the eyes of the general public and he consequently takes risks that place the young boys in his care in unacceptable levels of danger. It's the interference and the spreading of gossip by busybodies that create such an environment of instability and uncertainty that things inevitably take a turn for the worst.
There are no easy answers to be found in such a situation and all the complexity of the character of Peter Grimes and his reaction against social norms is there within Britten's score. And more besides, the composer's own sensibility refracted through Crabbe's drama in an intriguing and personal way. Britten finds a language for the anti-hero individual set against the mob in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and in Berg's Wozzeck, but the expression is entirely Britten's own and its temperament is completely English. His first traditionally structured and fully orchestrated opera, there's consequently a sweep to Peter Grimes that you don't find in any of Britten's other works, the score weaving in sea-shanties to haunting and sinister effect, creating an evocation of lives being subject to the brutal force of tides - tides of public opinion as much as the sea.
You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to these rhythms, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work. There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes, but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the swells to rise and the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable. There are no concerns about the singing either, but wisely that's because there's a predominately English/British cast. John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character. Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton's Ellen Orford. It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance. With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.
The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context. (It's nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance). All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones. You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements. Whether it's Auntie's "nieces" swaying down the street in their high-heels curling fingers through hair, whether it's figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it's more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it's as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten's music.
Stuart Laing's sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with. All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it. There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated - in a static kind of way - as the work goes on. The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and "boxed-in", again reflecting the nature of this society. Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on. It's by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn't supposed to be.
The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition. The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss. There's also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.