sat 18/05/2024

Peter Grimes, Aldeburgh Beach | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Grimes, Aldeburgh Beach

Peter Grimes, Aldeburgh Beach

Britten's greatest opera gets a staging to remember from Tim Albery

A perfect fit: Alan Oke as Peter Grimes

First things first. There are limited tickets still available for this run of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach but there won’t be for long, so move fast. You can read the rest of this review later; the next few minutes could make the difference between experiencing one of the most memorable performances of your life and just finding out what you’ve missed out on.

In Britten’s centenary year, the Aldeburgh Festival wanted to do something a bit special with Grimes, so they set themselves a logistical mountain to climb, booked Tim Albery to direct, and proceeded to deliver on all fronts. The audience sits facing the sea, with the stage interposed. Half the audience sits on bleachers, with the rest on the shingle in front.

Ellen Orford’s quartet with Auntie and the nieces is one of the highlights

The Britten-Pears Orchestra has been pre-recorded at the Snape concert performances a few days ago, and is played back through an array of speakers dotted around the seating areas. The soloists sing live into microphones, while the chorus sings live with a pre-recorded boost. It is remarkable that, despite a stiff breeze throughout the opening night’s performance, the sound was excellent and well balanced, with all elements, live and recorded, meshing seamlessly. The sound and lighting designers (Sound Intermedia and Lucy Carter respectively) deserve not mere plaudits, but awards, medals and knighthoods.

The stage itself, designed by Leslie Travers, is a long uneven strip of rugged jetty, weathered fishing boats, steps and ladders, looking like the lair of an audacious beachcomber; the backdrop is the gradually dimming sky above the grey fractal infinity of the North Sea; a light mist whooshes through the beams of the spotlights. Everything fits and feels appropriate, mesmerizingly so, from the sound of shingle crunching underfoot as the drum-led posse in Act II marches away into the darkness, to the wind whipping through Grimes’ hair as he pushes his boat out to sea for the last time.

Alan Oke (Grimes), Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford) and David Kempster (Balstrode) are the three main poles of the piece, and rise extremely well to the obvious challenges of the production. Grimes is often played as a more or less otherworldly character, detached, presumably, from the Borough even before things started going wrong. Oke instead goes normal, and his Grimes is just a fisherman, one of many. In many ways, it makes his tragedy seem more evitable, less of his own making. Every word he sings is intelligible (no surtitles, of course) and he hits the golden section of Britten interpretation: more song-like than operatic, more nuance and fragility than clanging projection.

Ellen Orford’s quartet with Auntie (Gaynor Keeble) and the nieces (Alexandra Hutton, Charmian Bedford) is one of the highlights, a testament to the singers of course, but also a reminder that this opera contains some of Britten’s most wildly accomplished writing. The Chorus of Opera North combined with the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama fulfil their duties with gusto, and form a very lively canvas for Leslie Travers’ costumes. A final word of advice: if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, dress for winter.

Everything fits and feels appropriate - mesmerizingly so


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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