Top positive review
20 people found this helpful
on 6 May 2014
I have three versions of this opera on DVD/Blu-ray, all of them are good, with subtle differences between them.
The oldest is the Royal Opera recording with Jon Vickers and Heather Harper, conducted by Colin Davis, dating from 1981. The second is the Met performance with Anthony Dean Griffey and Patricia Racette, conducted by Donald Runnicles, dating from 2008. The third is the recent (2013) Aldeburgh on the Beach performance with Alan Oke and Giselle Allen conducted by Steuart Bedford.
The two opera house recordings have crowded, claustrophobic sets, whereas the wide sprawling set on Aldeburgh beach emphasises the presence of nature. The Royal opera set is the most conventional of the three. The Met set often compartmentalises the singers. The Aldeburgh beach set is a very impressive panorama, brilliantly designed and implemented. However it does reduce the scale of the performers, who become more vulnerable to the forces of nature.
The singing and performances are excellent on all three recordings.
The sound quality is best on the Met production.
There are many layers to the opera.
Two factors bear down on Peter Grimes: the forces of nature and the forces of society. The stage productions can only hint at the forces of nature, while the Aldeburgh production actually adds the scale of nature to the power of the music.
Grimes is undoubtedly an unpleasant loner with a temper. He loves Ellen Orford, a widowed school teacher who describes her life in drab terms. He is overplayed as a tortured soul in the Met performance. His very ordinariness on Aldeburgh beach gives him a greater depth as the action progresses, he is a flawed everyman rather than a misunderstood poet.
The people of the Borough, the local village, oscillate between acceptance of each other’s oddities and brutal mob-rule. They are overplayed as black predators in the two stage versions, but again their very ordinariness on Aldeburgh beach gives a more chilling climax as the individuals merge into a mob. When they finally re-emerge as individuals getting on with their lives once rid of Grimes, the brutality of the mob they became is underlined and we are left in no doubt of the chilling capacity for good people to get drawn into mass vindictiveness.
The singers wear microphones for the Aldeburgh beach performance. I live in Sydney and am used to open air operatic events on Sydney Harbour (The Handa Opera) and so am not concerned about singers with microphones and amplifiers. One gets used to the characteristic sound very quickly and accepts that the outdoor performance compromises purity of sound for a greater sense of occasion or a new interpretation of the setting. I have no strong misgivings about the Aldeburgh recordings. The clarity of the diction is outstanding and the singing very good. There is one minor weakness, Giselle Allen’s (Orford’s) voice sounds thin and slightly muffled in act 2, on occasion even shrill. There was clearly a problem with wind at some points during the recorded performances, and this might explain the less than perfect rendering of her voice. A more pervasive shortcoming is that the orchestral sound lacks solidity in the bass and lacks clarity at the very high end. Since it was recorded in a studio, I see no obvious excuse for this.
There are a few simple factors in the interpretation of this opera that add to its capacity to engage. It should be easy enough to believe that a fisherman can make a living with just himself and an apprentice in a small boat powered by sails and oars. There must be a credible source of apprentices for Grimes, conventionally the workhouse, an institution abolished before 1930. The Aldeburgh beach performance starts with a World War II fighter aircraft flying past, and the urchins who momentarily interrupt the first scene are quite absurdly playing with a Reich war flag and a model German aircraft. While clearly paying tribute to the first production of the opera in 1945, they are mere indulgent distractions from the flow of the otherwise superb production. On the other hand, the overwhelming presence of nature in the Aldeburgh setting is a valid new interpretation of the traditionally crowded, even claustrophobic stage settings.