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Opera
January 2014

Review

Grimes

Karlsruhe
Despite its distinctive Suffolk seaside setting, Peter Grimes is probably the most universal of all Britten’s operas and could be located almost anywhere a director chose to transplant it. (Sadly it could easily be set in the present, as shown by the recent tragic case from a Bristol council estate, involving a disabled man brutally murdered after being wrongly accused by a local mob of paedophilia.)  In his riveting new production for the Badisches Staatstheater, Christopher Alden retains the British seaside ambience – though the entire action takes place indoors – and, to judge by Doey Lüthi’s costumes, seems to move the setting o the late 1960s.

For Alden, though, Grimes himself is neither a weirdo nor a child-killer but rather an oversensitive man trapped in a mean-spirited, thoroughly unpleasant community.  In the cavernous fish-and-chips establishment punningly named “auntie’s Place”, Grimes sits alone at his table in the corner, apart from the longer tables occupied by everyone else.  He is already there in the opening inquisition, while everyone else appears in the dark (there is never any daylight, no even for the Sunday morning scene) outside the windows of the empty room of Charles Edwards’s permanent set.  This venue also becomes the shelter in which everyone beds down during the storm or takes refuge with gas-masks, and the room in which Ellen teaches Sunday School – the Apprentice rubbing “God have mercy upon me” off the blackboard – while the church service is relayed in via an old radiogram.

Underlining Grimes’s essential goodness in this performance (October 18) was John Treleaven’s hugely sympathetic portrayal.  The Cornish tenor practically has Grimes in his genes – his father was a fisherman – and has long made it one of his signature roles.  His warm, ringing tone here showed that his voice remains in good shape.  He invested every word of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” with meaning and had a big stage presence even when being psychologically crushed.  Christina Niessen’s glinting Ellen (she is also a Karlsruhe Eva and Senta) cut a strong figure, making her breakdown during the Passacaglia all the more disturbing.  Jaco Venter’s well-sung seedy-looking Balstrode may not have been obviously sympathetic, but it was he who finally tore down the Fascist banner.

Cast from within the house’s regular ensemble, this was an impressive achievement all round. Rebecca Raffell disclosed a real contralto and warm tone as the formidable, chain-smoking Auntie, who applied the final coup de grâce by strangling Grimes with one of her stockings. Other notable performances came from Steven Ebel’s preacher-turned-Fasicist-leader Bob Boles, Andrew Finden’s sleazy Ned Keene, Lucas Harbour’s train-conductor Hobson and Eleazar Rodriquez’s strong-yet-sweet-toned Revd Horace Adams. Much credit for the ensemble’s success is due to the house’s Generalmusikdirecktor, Justin Brown, who galvanized his excellent orchestra right from the start but kept reserves for the powerful interludes. Everything in this taut performance evoked the grind of life and unforgivingness of the sea. As in his brother David Alden’s ENO Grimes – the two productions equally powerful but very different – here the director drew individual performances from each member of the fine chorus. Even in a Britten-saturated year, this was a newly shattering Grimes.