Britten: Peter Grimes
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Britten - Peter Grimes
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There are now, I think, six or seven recordings of Grimes (surely evidence,or proof, of the opera's status). For my money, both the first Colin Davis recording and that by Richard Hickox, the two recordings most cited as the best after Britten's, are ruled out by the casting of Grimes. John Vickers, for Davis, is too unsubtle, loud, blustery, violent, and lacking the poetry which Pears brings to the role (Britten himself hated Vickers' interpretation). Philip Langridge, for Hickox, goes too far the other way, sounding weak. I am not fond of Langridge's voice; to me it sounds like a cathedral choir tenor's voice, thin and rather affected. Anthony Rolfe Johnson, on this recording, is almost certainly the greatest singer of Britten's music after Pears, his voice never less than beautiful but encompassing also Grimes's sudden outbursts of violent rage.
Bernard Haitink is a superb interpreter of British music (listen to his set of Vaughan Williams symphonies, or watch the glorious Peter Hall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream from Glyndebourne). He paces this Grimes magnificently, allowing the music more space than Davis or Hickox (or Britten sometimes) and making the most of the thrilling passages where Britten pulls out all the stops (particularly the storm interlude, and the last act manhunt).
There is one disappointment. Felicity Lott was past her glorious best when she made this recording. Her voice often sounds worn and the tone lacks that last degree of radiance in the high lying passages. Claire Watson for Britten and Heather Harper for Davis are both in better voice. Lott, however, has the measure of Ellen and despite the vocal flaws, makes her a deeply sympathetic character.
A roster of very fine British singers make up the rest of the cast, Thomas Allen's Balstrode and Sarah Walker's Mrs Sedley (for once not played as a caricature) particularly outstanding.
This then, is an excellent recording of this great opera, not displacing Britten's definitive recording, but earning a place alongside it.
Haitink's recording has the right amount of vivacity and clarity of lines. Subsequently, the climaxes, fascinating orchestration and sheer 'theatre' seem much more alive and arresting compared to other recordings. This wouldn't be enough on its own to make it a very good listening experience though. Thankfully, the technicians have done a good job recording it. Alas, the same cannot be said of the Colin Davis LSO Live recording (2004): great performance but terrible recording. There are times when the underlying chorus lines and orchestral parts are barely audible in that recording.
Britten’s first and greatest opera (written in 1944) actually works very well on CD; there are no fancy settings (the action taking place in a fishing village, circa 1830), and no fantasy effects. It’s a human drama of the highest order, and here the various vividly-drawn characters are sung by a very strong British cast including: Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Grimes; Felicity Lott as Ellen Orford; Simon Keenlyside as Ned Keene; David Wilson-Johnson as Hobson; and Sarah Walker as Mrs. Sedley. As for baritone Thomas Allen - he is simply the best Balstrode I’ve heard.
The opening ‘inquest’ scene exemplifies this opera’s effectiveness as pure audio drama. The whispering, laughing, gasping crowd shows that this isn’t just a dry ‘stand and deliver’ studio performance. Sound effects (such as wind, and doors slamming in the storm), and a spatial depth (the distant church bells and choir, in Act II, for example) bring this special ‘Grimes’ to life.
Recorded in 1992, Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra (and Chorus) gives a polished performance, though it still packs a punch in all the right places (the storm and tub-thumping scenes, for instance).
The studio sound too is full, refined and well-balanced, bringing especial beauty to the most transcendent parts of the score: Peter’s soliloquy ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, and the Act Two quartet ‘From the gutter’, one of the most moving moments in all opera, with a sublime performance from Felicity Lott and Patricia Payne (as ‘Aunty’), with Maria Bovino and Gillian Webster (as the nieces).
This 2 CD set is packaged rather nicely too - with a red-and-gold slipcase (showing a photo of Aldeburgh Beach by Bill Brandt), and booklet with full libretto, cast photos, synopsis, plus notes by Colin Matthews.
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Here, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, offers a much more nuanced interpretation. Grimes is neither weak or strong, but a man at first determined to fight the hypocrisy of the village folk; more ambivalent about his relationship with Ellen Orford and the prospect of a 'normal life'; becoming increasingly detached from the community, until finally, reluctantly, accepting his fate. Perhaps a too educated (intellectual) approach ? But also more believable.
Pears, Vickers, and Rolfe Johnson, are vocally exceptional, each offering completely different versions of the enigmatic role.
All three versions employ the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) orchestra and chorus, but only in this recording are they prominent. Peter Grimes relies heavily on the music to convey atmosphere and mood. The six Interludes, for example. Britten's music is here heard in full and brilliant detail and sound; and the chorus, clear and forceful.
The opera is centred on Grimes, but the auxiliary characters are crucial, especially Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode. All three recordings have superb and memorable interpreters: as Orford (Decca: Claire Watson; Philips: Heather Harper; EMI: Felicity Lott); and as Balstrode (Decca: James Pease; Philips: Jonathan Summers; EMI: Thomas Allen). The village characters are equally important. They are, after all, the 'society' who judge and finally condemn the troubled fisherman. The individuals, Auntie, Swallow, Boles, Keene, Mrs. Sedley, Hobson, etc..., at times providing the rare element of humour in the opera, are best differentiated in this recording.
Peter Grimes is certainly one of the most important operatic masterpieces from Britain, based on universal and timeless themes. And for Britten, a very personal work, himself an 'outsider' dealing with the social prejudices of his day.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson handles the title role well and is able to evoke some sympathy toward the hard-driven outcast. His sinuous vocal descent on the word "Go" is masterful (Act II, Scene 2).
Thomas Allen is well suited for Balstrode, but Felicity Lott is not to my liking as Ellen Orford. Her art song delivery seems a little highbrow for this village school mistress. Having said that, her scene in Act II with Auntie and the two nieces is lovely. The four women blend like a string quartet, again perhaps owing to Haitink's direction.
There are some surprising gems in the supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Walker elevates Mrs Sedley from an opium-deprived alarmist to an impassioned advocate for the misused apprentice.
Peter Grimes has long been a favorite of mine and I feel we are fortunate to have a wealth of complete recordings to choose from.