Britten: Peter Grimes

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Benjamin Britten
LABELS: Opus Arte
ALBUM TITLE: Britten: Peter Grimes
WORKS: Peter Grimes
PERFORMER: John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitch, Catherine Wyn-Rigers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson; La Scala Chorus & Orchestra/Robin Ticciati

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The superb British ensemble imported by La Scala for this production of Peter Grimes has been widely praised, but I can’t help wishing they’d used their own forces, as befits truly international works. Even translating Grimes to a Calabrian fishing village would have distorted it less than Richard Jones’s wholly unmaritime 1980s concrete housing estate. This allows some cheap vitality – the blasé lesbian Nieces are an amusing touch – but at the cost of constant war with words and music. For all Robin Ticciati’s vivid conducting, the capstan ensemble, for example – originally a crucial moment which demonstrates the villagers’ reluctance to help Grimes to haul his boat ashore – loses all its meaning when it’s only used to stack plastic crates. And the storm offers little menace, although, perversely, the pub is shown rocking like a boat.

More seriously, this soap-and-tabloid setting simply can’t accommodate workhouses, bought prentices, lone fishermen, ‘squalid sea-dames’ and everything else that drives the action. Britten’s Borough, with its claustrophobic class distinctions and character tensions, simply drains away into vacuity, and with it the raison d’être of figures like Bob Boles, Ned Keene and Mrs Sedley, here presented as a classless Myra Hindley lookalike. Susan Gritton’s aging, ginger-rinsed Ellen Orford, finely sung, may gain a little by contrast, but Christopher Purves’s Balstrode becomes a neat beige-clad nonentity.

Most violently distorted is Grimes himself, no tough fisherman but a seedy inadequate cringing from the local teenagers, and suggesting all too contemporary abuse problems. John Graham-Hall evokes his contorted inner life superbly, but with leaner tones than competitors on video such as Peter Pears, Christopher Ventris, Jon Vickers and Philip Langridge, all in better stagings.

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Michael Scott Rohan