There is, finally, a recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes on Blu-ray. It’s a Richard Jones production with a largely British cast, recorded at La Scala in 2012. The sound and picture quality are first rate. Unfortunately the production and performances aren’t so much.
Richard Jones has chosen to set the piece in the 1980s and to portray the inhabitants of the Borough as a sort of inbred hive mind fuelled by prejudice, alcohol and drugs. Actually it’s not a bad concept but it comes off as exaggerated with cast and chorus repeatedly making more or less coordinated middle aged disco moves. He also portrays the nieces as the sort of permanently stoned bubble heads one wants to avoid on the last train home. There are some neat touches. The Moot Hall, The Boar and Grimes’ hut are all formed by box like spaces that are tilted and rotated to good effect. The lighting is effective too. Unusually for a modern production Jones doesn’t provide any staging for the interludes, leaving the theatre dark with the curtain down. Overall, it’s a production I’d want to take a second look at but I suspect it’s just painted too broadly to be really effective.
Central to any production of Grimes is the man himself. Here he’s played by John Graham-Hall who is new to me. He is a lyrical singer in the Pears/Langridge manner, rather than the Heldentenor so often employed nowadays. He can do the lyrical part as he shows in the big arias but in between he tends to drop into something closer to speech than singing. Whether this was his decision or Jones’ I can’t say but it didn’t work for me. His characterization is decent though. He presents a dreamy Grimes, much in the Pears mould, maybe even more so, which makes the violent side of Grimes that bit more incongruous. Ellen Orford is sung by Susan Gritton and it’s a very committed performance but I just can’t like her voice. It’s got a shrill quality that just doesn’t work for this character. One longs for the security and sweetness of tone of Heather Harper or Patricia Racette.
Christopher Purves’ Balstrode is unusual again. He’s curiously diffident and highly strung, not the tower of common sense that anchors the plot. Purves sings well though. Felicity Palmer is a very fine, if rather unexpected, Auntie and the other supporting roles are generally well sung and acted. Then there’s the chorus. Perhaps when they decided to bring in a British cast they should have gone the whole hog and brought in a British chorus because the La Scala one is pretty ropey. There are issues with intonation and ensemble and they just sound a bit off and rather feeble. The chorus is vital in this piece and some of the big numbers are awe inspiring (for the full effect see the final scene in the Metropolitan Opera recording). Here the big choral numbers are a bit of a throwaway. By contrast, the orchestra sounds really good and Robin Ticciati gets a suitably idiomatic performance out of them, especially in the interludes.
Video direction is by Patrizia Carmine. It’s a bit mixed. She’s not afraid to give us the “best seat in the house” view, though not perhaps often enough, but she is fond of odd camera angles such as directly overhead. Overall, I don’t think she helps the stage production. She handles the difficult problem of what to do during the interludes by focussing on the conductor and cutting to very close shots of bits of instruments. It’s a bit weird but I’m not sure that anything else would have been better. Picture and sound quality (DTS HD Master Audio) are quite excellent; certainly better than any of the competing DVD offerings. There are 14 minutes of interviews with Ticciati, Graham-Hall and the choreographer offered as bonuses but none of it really illuminates the production. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean (not Italian!). The booklet has a cued synopsis and a short essay on “Peter Grimes at La Scala”.
This production and performance has its strengths but it’s not nearly as compelling as the New York or Zürich versions but sadly they are not available on Blu-ray. For a synopsis of the strengths and weaknesses of all six available video recordings click here.