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Artillery Row

Genuine English opera

‘Peter Grimes’ labours under the weight of national anxieties

I really wonder whether English people should be allowed to have anything to do with Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera. It seems to make them frightfully nervous: as if this rare example of a 100 per cent genuine English opera has to bear the whole weight of their anxieties, that it must speak for all national neuroses wherever they may appear. Other lands with a surfeit of these artefacts can spread the load a bit, give the poor creatures room to breathe, not burden them like some mangy scapegoat with the accumulated sins of the whole society every time they are performed.

How brilliantly perverse to try to kick off a national opera tradition twenty years late

The thing is that Grimes really is very good — properly, operatically, much stronger, better, more convincing, more beautiful than we have any right to expect from a 1945 opera, particularly one that effectively came out of nowhere: how brilliantly perverse to try to kick off a national opera tradition after the whole show, arguably, had been over since Puccini’s death twenty years earlier. Grimes, Britten’s first real opera at the age of 32, written after his anxious homecoming in 1942 from American exile, certainly does, in a raw and weirdly ingenuous way, evince the neuroses of the man (the returning, homosexual, conchie stop-out) and the time. Montagu Slater’s lumpy libretto (sometimes awkward, occasionally inspired), with its brilliantly chosen subject, is distilled from George Crabbe’s 1810 poem, The Borough, about a small-minded town chillingly coming together against the unpleasant, misfit fisherman.

It was a great, fearless work for the young Britten to have produced, reinventing modernism in a way acceptable to the philistine opera gang, while remaining true to the 20th century spirit of Alban Berg and Dmitri Shostakovich (Grimes takes huge spiritual and technical inspiration from the latter’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, premiered in 1934). Even its imperfections are fruitful: the awkward vignettes of Borough society, the incompleteness and contradictions of Peter himself, leave room for directorial interventions and filling-in of various kinds (I rather liked the way the American director David Alden made the Borough pub scene expressionistically Weimar-freaky in his ENO staging over a decade ago: foreign directors are happily untrammelled by the freight of Englishness).

This show was created by director Deborah Warner and her team for the Madrid Opera last year, and now arrives in some triumph at Covent Garden. The Spanish press did not fail to notice its Brexity aura: in fact it looks like a mea culpa (read: suae culpa) to lay before those superior continentals in apology for that regrettable idiocy, set not in genteel Aldeburgh but some much more feral east-coast port, a riot of Poundland fashions, boarded-up shopfronts and very highly-strung bare-chested larrikins with Union Jack tattoos (in case the Spanish misinterpreted St George’s cross, I suppose). The programme book offers us a hilarious vignette of Warner and her designer Michael Levine visiting Margate and Jaywick in quaking search of deplorables to depict on stage.

The townspeople obviously go a bit far with their lynch-mob, but they kind of have a point

Of course, there’s more to it than that. But while the crowd scenes (of growing and alarming ferocity) are brought to the stage with real theatrical force — and this is a massive choral opera — we are also left with the uncomfortable pseudo-naturalism of 19th century characters fitting not very well into 20th century clothes, not helped by rather broad caricatures like John Tomlinson’s Mayor Swallow, correctly hectoring and brutish but basically unconvincing in every way. Even the great Bryn Terfel doesn’t really seem to know who to be as gruff Captain Balstrode, rough-hewn but true-hearted, a mediator between Peter and the hostile town; true, he doesn’t get much change out of Allan Clayton’s exceptionally standoffish Grimes, but neither does he grow into the sort of moral referee whose final admonition to Peter to do away with himself should really carry an almost Greek weight of the ineluctable.

Clayton sings with the greatest beauty. Peter is a profoundly difficult character, utterly unsocial, overbearing and rough (to say the least) towards his small apprentices, prone to incomprehensible outbursts of peculiar poetic imagery and sudden romantic inclinations. Hurled into the town pub by the storm he silences the place with his ecstatic, interior aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades…”. His strange, sexless relationship with the schoolteacher Ellen Orford (Maria Bengtsson) never looks like a goer, with her saviour complex and his apparent lack of any interest in her except as an aid to social acceptance. Following the death of his first apprentice (sickened and died at sea), Ellen (to the town’s considerable disapproval) fixes him up with a new one — absurdly young and small, by the way, and no possible good to man or beast — who understandably cowers and curls into a ball while Peter bullocks around. The townspeople, with that chavvy anti-paedo fury so beloved of English proles, obviously go a bit far with their whole lynch-mob thing, but they kind of have a point.

The evening’s many beauties feel disconnected, not part of any greater vision

There is a lot that is thoroughly admirable about this show, but the evening’s many beauties feel disconnected, not part of any greater vision. Beauty comes in many forms: the aural sort that softens the orchestra to lulling strings to accompany Peter’s dreamy fantasies; the limpid voice of Maria Bengtsson, with a tone of threnody in everything she sings — but this woman’s curious hamartia, a weakness at crucial moments, is never explored. A lovely women’s quartet (a sort of escapee from Richard Strauss) which briefly bestows a contingent blessing on proceedings, has little dramatic effect, since it tries to evoke a compassion for hard lives the staging has shown little interest in. Michael Levine’s detailed stage-sets of seafront, hut, pub are beguilingly lit by Peter Mumford. Conductor Mark Elder indulges the symphonic score (really, maybe too symphonic with all those attractive but tension-sapping interludes) with elemental intensity: the calmness and fury of nature, the great sweep of the sea and turbulent skies. The orchestra is utterly engaged, abrasive brass, pungent woodwinds, biting percussion, the strings painting calm moonlight and wild turmoil with total mastery I bet the Radio 3 transmission sounds fabulous.

Despite the power of the musical performance and of Clayton’s singing (and of some others, too), there is a hole here, and it is in the staging. In a programme-book interview, Clayton tells us the message of the piece is “the ultimate guide of how not to behave as a society” — well, duh, great for a Year 6 starting-point, less so for the free-with-every-copy-of-the-Guardian virtue-badge. Directors, indeed, are supposed to frame these works in ways that illuminate the piece and society (that is what opera is: one society presented to another on stage, with definite didactic intent), but what we have here seems more an attempt to put a putative “Daily Mail mindset”, a feverishly over-imagined, ogreish fantasy, on stage. Not an attractive prospect at the best of times, I agree. But certainly Peter Grimes, and I suppose at least some of the audience, are subtler and richer and better than that.

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