Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all seven currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.

Worthwhile Peter Grimes marred by poor DVD production

Britten’s Peter Grimes is pretty well served on DVD. Peter Pears’ performance was captured in a BBC broadcast in 1969 and John Vicker’s radical interpretation was captured on video in 1981. More recently Christopher Ventris and Tony Dean Griffey have also made it onto video disc. There is also Philip Langridge in Tim Albery’s 1994 ENO production which is the focus of this review.

Discussions of interpreting Grimes tend to fall into a Pears vs. Vickers dichotomy. Vickers offers a rather brutal portrayal which is consistent with the libretto but tends to downplay the subtlety of the music while Pears is almost lyrical and dreamy. Notoriously the composer greatly preferred Pears’ version and had little good to say about Vickers. Langridge doesn’t really fit either of these models. His reading is intense, veers on madness from the beginning and is totally convincing in the “mad scene” in Act 3 Scene 2. What’s harder to reconcile with this reading is the violence that can’t be avoided. Langridge’s Peter just doesn’t come across as the sort of man who would suddenly strike a woman in the face. That said, it’s a fascinating and compelling reading. It’s also beautifully sung. Parts of the role lie cruelly high (certainly too high for Vickers) but Langridge copes with ease and beauty of tone. It’s a performance to stand alongside any of the others. He’s very well backed up by Alan Opie as Balstrode who is as good as anyone else who has taken on the role (and that’s an exalted list) Janice Cairns is a pretty good Ellen Orford. She starts a bit slow but by the second act she’s singing and acting beautifully. The rest of the cast is also pretty good. Unfortunately the orchestra (conducted by the usually excellent David Atherton) and chorus aren’t up to the standard one might hope for. They are certainly not in the same league as the Metropolitan Opera forces on the DVD recorded as part of the “Live in HD” series and they just don’t have either the punch in the gut impact in the final scene that one would like or the shimmering beauty that Runnicles finds in the Sea Interludes. Some of this may be the recording (see below) but some I think is intrinsic to the performance.

Tim Albery’s production is interesting. On one level it’s quite conventional with somewhat stylized but essentially naturalistic sets; fishing boats, nets, a tavern etc. Costumes too are in the same vein; set perhaps a few decades later than originally but not jarringly so. On another it’s less obvious. He makes use of video projections in the interludes. They are black and white and switch from grainy, almost posterized, sea scenes (including some rather odd fish) to projections of Peter and his apprentice later on. They also make an appearance during the storm scene in the pub. They look a bit clunky to me. Whether that’s deliberate or the best that 1994 technology could manage I’m not sure. The detailed stage direction, both of principals and chorus, is at times very good indeed. I suspect that it’s actually even better than the DVD allows us to see. The Act 1 scene between Balstrode and Grimes made me realize that Grimes really is a tragedy. The protagonist has choices but his pride forces him towards his nemesis. I’ve never previously seen that so well brought out. The menace in the crowd scenes is palpable too. Where I’m less convinced is in Albery’s focus on the apprentice. We see visuals of him all the time and the opera closes on a projection of his corpse. He’s also portrayed as utterly terrified all the time. It’s somewhat at odds with the portrayal of Grimes and makes it quite hard to see why Ellen and Balstrode don’t smell a rat. Also, the focus on the relation between Peter and the boy downplay the role of the sea as a player in the drama. For me, the inexorability of the sea is a constant chorus element in this opera but it doesn’t come out in this production.

Now for the disappointing bit. The DVD sucks. I so wish I had seen this live! The video direction was very clearly for small screen (its from a BBC broadcast) and odd angles and super close-ups abound. One has to work quite hard to mentally reconstruct what Albery was aiming for. The sound too is poor. The only option is Dolby 2.0 and it lacks clarity. The chorus at times sounds pretty awful and I’m sure a big part of that is the recording. To cap it off there are no subtitles. That might not matter if the recording were super clean but it isn’t. The only documentation is a chapter listing. Now I was watching the North American release on the notorious Kultur label (when I hear the word “Kultur” I reach for my Browning). In Europe it was released on Euroarts and based on past experience and reviews that might well be a different story.

If the best you can do is a copy of the Kultur pressing I’d say this is definitely worth a look, if only for Langridge’s performance, but it’s by no means the best recording out there.