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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 August 2010
I would accept pretty well everything that 221b and M. Joyce say in their reviews, and perhaps the small imperfections in this presentation might edge a reviewer towards 4 stars instead of 5. But this is the great revitalising post-War English opera, the product of Britten's time in the States and return to Suffolk, drawn back partly by Forster's essay on Crabbe and nostalgia for his roots, and here it is conducted by the composer, the principal role taken by Peter Pears, his closest companion and collaborator, staged by the first Ellen, Joan Cross, and filmed in the Maltings, the concert hall Britten and Pears established as central to their Aldeburgh festival. Really, we are so lucky to have this. It is true that there are occasional problems of ensemble between chorus and orchestra and in the orchestra itself, most notably at the beginning of the 'Morning' interlude, where the strings/woodwind and brass want to play at different tempi. It is true that the confined space at the Maltings is sometimes evident, though actually that could be said to intensify the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Borough. It is true that Sir Peter, a wonderful vocal actor, sometimes cuts a rather strange figure in the role, visually rather than vocally (he has a tendency to move rather stiffly, for example). But there is so, so much that is excellent that I have no wish to carp. No doubt Pears's voice was stronger when he was younger, but there is tremendous pathos and involvement in his performance. The set is good and the movement onstage mostly convincing and, when required, dramatic. We can of course be confident that Britten's approach to the score is authoritative, and in fact he was an excellent conductor, so much so that I wonder whether the small blemishes arose from difficulties within the orchestra of hearing clearly in the space - but of course I don't know. Overall, it is a vivid and dramatic presentation. I do find the recording a bit bass-heavy (in particular the timpani are rather 'boomy'). But from the first moment to the last, the production draws you in ; it's riveting. 4 stars? - no, it's 5 ; for all its minor frailties, this is a just production of a masterpiece, a very moving link with the past.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 January 2009
Although the new style Met Opera DVDs have the irritating and poor quality "intermission interviews," if you skip these sections, which take place on set and destroy any sense of theatrical illusion, the opera itself is well produced with some outstanding performances. Diction and acting are generally excellent with very strong singing in the secondary roles and excellent chorus work. Although it takes some time to adjust to the set - very different from anything Britten would have sanctioned - the drama quickly captures you and the climax is more moving than any other production i have seen. The high definition transfer is excellent and the DTS recording is expansive and immediate. It's good to have this outstanding work in the budget category too, as so many opera on DVD are very expensive indeed. If only the Met did not patronize its audiences with those terrible interviews! Please can they put them as DVD extras and not integrate them into the body of the work and at least have intelligent questions and interviewers who really know what they are talking about. I know the Met is trying to embrace new audiences but tabloid TV is a very patronising way of attempting to achieve this.
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on 29 October 2008
This is a 1969 studio recording directed by Joan Cross, who created Ellen Orford in the original stage production in 1945. It is in remarkably good sound and colour picture quality and has transferred well to DVD. The opera is staged well in limited studio facilities, in simple but effective sets (which only occasionally appear a little cardboardy!). Peter Pears here recreates his central performance of the lead role - it's a great shame he didn't commit this earlier in his career. Whilst it is great to have a visual record of him, he lacks the power and brute force for the role which we are more accustomed to seeing in modern productions. He looks a highly improbably fisherman - described in the opening scene as "callous, brutal and coarse" - rather he gives me the impression of a somewhat faded aristocrat in his twilight years! But vocally he brings his unique ethereal sound to the haunted man, making him a true outsider.
However, this quibble aside, this is a very satisfying DVD with fabulous performances from the supporting cast, all with great diction. How lucky we are to see and hear Owen Brannigan's amazing bass! I found the composer's own conducting of the score a little scrappy on occasions, but the drama of the piece soon carries you away and the climax of the orchestral Passacaglia is absolutely superb! Peter Grimes is one of those key operas that everyone should see, and this production is a great introduction for anyone who hasn't been lucky enough to see it before.
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on 14 September 2012
This was filmed for TV under studio conditions, but has the energy and feel of a live performance. And it is a riveting performance.

Peter Pears is mesmerising in the title role, which he sings superbly, is a convincing actor, and has terrific stage presence. The poetic, haunted, and manic aspects of the role come over well, and he somehow manages to look both aristocratic and grizzled. Heather Harper is a sympathetic Ellen Orford. The other cast and chorus are very good, clearly relishing their contributions. The realistic staging is atmospheric. Benjamin Britten, highly accomplished on the podium as well as composing, conducts his work as it should go, injecting plenty of energy, momentum and colour into a fairly brisk reading.

Carefully remastered, picture and sound quality are very good, quite reasonable even by today's standards. There are optional subtitles. The performance held my interest enough to play it straight through in one go. Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 September 2010
This version of 'Peter Grimes' has a great deal to be said for it. It's been filmed live at the Met, with a strong cast, interesting set and direction and very good orchestral support. Dramatically, it is most successful, with the big moments very powerful and the more intimate ones affecting and compelling. Anthony Dean Griffey is a first-rate Grimes. He sings superbly and his acting is as good. Patricia Racette is also very fine as Ellen. All the lesser principals are at least adequate and sometimes much better than that - Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Sedley in particular is very good. And the opera is well managed by Donald Runnicles.

The set is (deliberately) oppressive - a great black wooden wall representing the high-sided shoreside huts from which nets would be hung. On these walls are doors at various levels which open to reveal the characters in the drama, so that there is the effect of constant surveillance - whatever Grimes and Ellen do, the Borough is always watching. This works well, though I did think that the oppressive blackness wasn't really right for the Sunday morning scene, when the jaunty brightness of the Morning Interlude should introduce a brief relief in the claustrophobic drama. At the end, after Grimes walks away to his solitary death out at sea, the set opens up and light - not bright, rather melancholy - flows in, and the chorus and principals walk on for the final sequence, and this works very well indeed.

So what is wrong with all of this? Nothing musically or dramatically. But why oh why did the Met feel it necessary to intersperse the drama with interviews and featurettes? Grimes rushes out into the night dragging the doomed apprentice with him, the Chorus sings 'Home? Do you call that home?', the orchestra dashes to the tumultuous end of the Storm section, the curtain falls, we feel poleaxed by the music and the drama - and immediately we see the production room and then an onstage interview with Griffey and Racette, both clearly recovering breath, so that we can hear, for example, a message from Griffey to the folks back home and his former university. All dramatic impulse is lost. Later, we switch to Aldeburgh and a bizarre night-time interview with the local cinema manager about how Britten helped save the cinema from financial ruin in the 1960s. In the Britten-Pears Decca DVD, the Interludes are supported visually by vague abstract scenes - sea or sky or a mixture - and none of the dramatic tension is lost. Why are we not given these interviews and so on (and there are interesting things in them as well as some strange stuff) as extras, so we could make our own choice about when to watch them (or not!). It seems perverse not to have done so.

But there it is. This is still a fine 'Grimes', still well worth seeing. The other bits and pieces cause frustration, but they do not mask the excellence of the musical and dramatic work.
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on 13 February 2010
Good vocal performances from a uniformly strong cast, great quality HD film (although irritating camera angles sometimes show us stage crew lurking in the wings, thus breaking the theatrical illusion), Runnicles leads the Met orchestra stupendously, and all at a bargain price. My only criticism of the production is that it is all a bit clinically clean with no sense of the landscape and climate; not one whiff of the salt air or sea apart from in the music. All the costumes look freshly washed and pressed by the wardrobe mistress - this is supposed to be a working 19th century English fishing town - where is all the mud, rain, sand and fish guts?

Unfortunately the 2 disc set is ruined by the presentation - we really do not need Natalie Dessay (great performer that she is, she can offer absolutely no insight into this opera) nervously fidgeting with cue cards and microphones, hovering in the wings to leap on performers as they step off the stage.
If the Met must insist on 'educating' us with this inane celebrity style chatter, please stick it all on the end of the disc so those who just want to watch the opera can do so. They did so with the release of Netrebko's Lucia, so why not all the other releases? Yes you can skip chapters, but we shouldn't have to!
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Not much Crabbe gets in Britten's net. Ironically for a Pears vehicle, the chorus and Heather Harper are the stars in this piece of Wozzeck-and-water, as I believe Thomas Adès snarkily described it; I'm afraid it'd the Englishness I have a problem with. This DVD novice was appalled to find the whole thing mimed*, possibly bar a few spoken words near the end (Pears's gurning distractingly suggestive of Michael Parkinson) and suggest you (a) see it a performance (b) get a CD (c) read Crabbe instead - but not Grimes, most melodramatic and least convincing among his sombre oeuvre. Other reviewers hymn the sets; I was thinking Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Wouldn't something expressionist have been more fitting for this dark allegory of repression? But I forget, this is England - and then there are those awkward comedy elements. A Jerry Springer-style life of Jimmy Savile (or even Rolf Harris? watch this space) - now that would be something! I'm afraid Britten is the Coventry Cathedral of music. Who was the last Italian to call good Sir Basil maestro? How many Brits even recall Spence's name? Come, friendly bombs..

* I have been roundly corrected on this. My TV must be at fault. Or my brain
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on 31 July 2009
This is a wonderful dvd. The production is in keeping with Britten's own expressed view that this opera was NOT about the sea but about a community and the cast is a very strong one. Anthony Dean Griffey is simply magnificent as Grimes & Patricia Racette both convincing & touching as Ellen Orford.
My only query is..why the mention of Renee Fleming in the product details?! She doesn't even do the (worse even than usual) interviews!
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on 7 November 2010
An opera like this one is surprising in many ways but this is a special BBC production of 1969 and I would like to insist first on the tremendous qualities of this production.

The first element is the setting. It is a complete village square surrounded by wooden houses all raised over the ground with outside staircases to go up to the main doors, what’s more on the flank of some steep rising shore. These raised houses insist on the danger the sea represents when a tidal wave or a storm comes up to the coast. All made of wood. That's a brilliant idea and yet it is entirely unrealistic. It wants to be out of time and set in a past that could make the story plausible, a past we can evaluate to be the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century. That village looks like a pioneering settlement in New England in the 17th century, a puritan settlement in a way where everyone is meddling with the business of all others because they are locked away from the world, and their only entertainment is to gossip and accuse the one they don't like of all abominable crimes, and that’s Peter Grimes.

The second element is the house of Peter Grimes, or “hut” if you prefer. It looks like an upturned ship hull, a dream for many seamen who want to live on the earth as if they were on their boats. It is not without recalling some other uses of that concept, and in a way it reminds me of Moby Dick and of the whale which swallowed Jonas. Here the boat is swallowing the seaman even on earth. But it is Peter Grimes’ house which means he lives in an upside down sea world, in a shipwrecked boat ready to sink. This image is a very sad and grim vision.

The third positive point is the use of crowds. The chorus is not in anyway set aside or gathered in one place, even a changing place on the stage. The chorus singers are dressed like normal sea fishermen and sailors and their wives the same, and they are moving as if they were a real crowd and that gives a good illusion of the mass movements of an at times hostile crowd when they are more or less chasing Peter Grimes, rather more than less.

The fourth point is the very clear distinction between the officials of the village and that crowd. They move alone and not along with a mass of people and they are dressed in a slightly different way. The lawyer and mayor for example with his red coat, or Ellen, the widowed school-teacher, with a knitted sweater and a big brooch. There is thus a clear distinction between the important people and the common people, on top of the fact that the former are the soloists.

The story is of course what is essential in that opera that is telling us a story. It is a very bleak story. Peter Grimes, a solitary sailor, needs an apprentice and he takes orphans from the workhouse in the next but rather distant city. The profession of fisherman is a very difficult profession with many hazards and we could say it is not a profession for children of let's say 10, or even 12, or 14 as for that. What's more Peter Grimes seems to be rather rough and careless. In other words his apprentices seem to die by accident in a rather repetitive way. Helped by Ellen at first, he is abandoned by her when she discovers that the new apprentice is being brutalized. One day when trying to run away from the hostile crowd climbing up to his hut, the new apprentice slips and falls off the cliff to his death. Peter Grimes hides away for a couple of days but he has to come back and there a retired merchant captain gives him the only piece of advice that would pacify the village: take your boat, go out at sea and sink the boat and yourself. And he does it.

The story is depicting a brutal world that is not so much so physically, but I would say socially. The people are meddling with their neighbors' business all the time, creating tension and stress and pushing people to the brink of sanity and causing over-reactions more than anything else. This is perfectly rendered in this production.

But there is an aspect of this story that has to be emphasized because it is a repetitive pattern in many operas. A poor boy abandoned by society and surviving in a workhouse (which refers to at the latest the 19th century) is “bought” by Peter Grimes to be his apprentice on his ship. Apparently his apprentices systematically die. The opera starts with the “trial” of the latest victim, but the Lawyer and Mayor who presides over the court shortens the debate and declares the death occurred in “accidental circumstances” to the high disagreement of the population of the shipping village because there will be no real trial.

We discover that an old spinster is playing the role of the moralistic and ethical accuser in the village in the name of God of course. Her campaign is effective because Peter Grimes lives alone in a “hut” higher up on the cliff. His “hut” is an upside down ship hull. He is in a relation with the widow who serves as the local teacher, Ellen Orford. She intervenes to soften the villagers’ feelings when the carter is asked to bring the next boy to Peter Grimes from the workhouse since he is going to the town, and he refuses to do it not to be the accomplice of a murder. She actually goes with him to make sure. The boy is delivered in the evening: he looks frightened and completely lost, which is normal after all since he is now an uprooted child from an institution where he was already uprooted, meaning with no parents, and exploited, meaning severely. We all think of Dickens and Oliver Twist.

But there will be no escape, no redemption, no salvation for that boy. That’s an important trait in Benjamin Britten’s operas: such uprooted boys will not find any good Samaritan who would take them under their protection. This twist is amplified by the hostility of the village against Peter Grimes. He is perceived as a loner, and a busy one at that, who is trying to do better than he should, fish more than he should, even go out on Sunday when everyone is resting since it is the day of the Lord. They perceive him as looking down upon them. And when they start their move towards lynching Peter Grimes they sing at the end “Him who despises us we will destroy.” In other words he is the “stranger” they reject because he does not live like them: he does not come to the pub to drink and take advantage of the nieces of the Auntie who is taking care of the pub-cum-inn where the sailors can rest-cum-entertain. And to make more money, to be able to step up in his life to some better future, he “buys” boys instead of working with another sailor who would be a partner or an employee.

This man rejected by everyone is also a pattern in Benjamin Britten’s operas and it is easy to relate this pattern to the personal life experience of the composer. We are of course not implying Benjamin Britten is projecting his personal life into his operas, hence his emotional and sentimental frustration in this society that rejects him, and Peter Pears at the same time, but we say Benjamin Britten has a direct and personal experience of this social rejection anyone can be the victim of for any reason at hand in the homogenized single collective mind of a crowd. Every single member of this crowd might be pretty nice in private but the crowd creates the lynching and pogromming monster in every single one of us when the opportunity is right in front of our door, but here it is not ethnic cleansing but social cleansing.

This double estrangement in this opera is fascinating. The boy is estranged from society by successive uprootings that lead him to death in a way or another, the first one at the beginning of thirst, and the second one at the end of a big fall, like Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. The man is estranged from the village and from society by his ambition that makes him appear as superior, ambition that will not be fulfilled, satisfied, realized. And the context itself is an estrangement for everyone or nearly: a sailor in his ship is alone and his home, as Peter Grimes says at the end before his own end, is “deep in the sea” and it is deep in the sea that he will end along with his ship, on the advice of the retired merchant skipper, Captain Balstrode. In other words the end is the reenactment of the walking of the plank of old shipping traditions: death penalty at sea.

All this makes this opera poignant and mind-raking. Is humanity that ugly?

But there is of course the music and that is of course a great if not the greatest element in the opera. The music never ceases, except one a capella duet, and is always dramatic in its movements up and down in the most logical and yet surprising ways, half a tone here and there turns minor the most logical major sentence, suspends it in thin air, in fear and awe. We cannot really know what is coming and the notes are thus separated one from the others as if the strings of notes were in fact successions of unlinked notes creating an effect of total outlandish isolation at times. This builds in the solos a strange feeling of distance, of something lurking in-between the notes, something menacing us constantly. That tone and atmosphere finds its acme with the choruses. The various chorus-singers sing together but most of the times along lines and patterns that are crisscrossing one another to give that impression of a hostile crowd no one can stop or dominate. There is one exception to that disorder. It is the early duet of Ellen Orford and Peter Grimes when they plan some kind of common future with the new child to come. It is sung for its major part a capella and the sentences are perfectly superimposed one onto the other with only the pronouns changing: a dual unison more than a duet, and yet a duet because we feel this unity is highly endangered. The contrast between this messy and meddling crowd as long as Peter Grimes is alive and the sudden total ignorance and forgetfulness once he is gone, meaning dead, is of course striking thanks to that use of the music to build a dangerous and menacing environment.

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on 6 July 2009
I think I agree on most points with reviewer '221b' (is that his bus home?). Let me enforce the fact that this is virtually the current English Opera Group production and -for that alone- it is a considerable historical document. For strong and challenging live performances/productions, go to Vickers or Ventris or (best) Langridge at ENO, but have this Pears DVD as an adjunct.

However, for Pears & co. at their very best, buy the companion DVD Billy Budd...it is just breathtaking, with Pears absolutely stunning as Captain Vere. Vocally, he (and Glossop as Billy, for that matter)surpasses himself on the similarly-cast Decca recording from the following year. Mackerras offers a valid alternative to Britten himself, conducting a very dramatic performance. Go for it!!!!!
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