Earlier this month I was reviewing a new CD recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes for Opera Canada (you should be able to read it in the issue that’s currently at the printers). It’s a rather good performance from the Bergen Philharmonic with Stuart Skelton in the title role. In digging into previous recordings while writing that review I came across a 1995 recording with Philip Langridge in the title role. I was familiar with his ENO performance which was brilliant and is captured on DVD but there are serious issues with that recording so I was delighted to be able to have another listen.
Death in Venice is a curious opera. Based on a Thomas Mann novella, it concerns the aging writer Gustav von Aschenbch and his meditations on aging and art, as well as his obsession with a Polish boy encountered at his Venice hotel. Very little actually happens. Aschenbach has a series of encounters with quotidien characters such as the hotel manager and a hairdresser but mostly he observes and what we hear are a series of inner monologues. To work as theatre Aschenbach must capture our interest and our sympathy. If he doesn’t the piece can be incredibly boring and irritating.
Britten’s Albert Herring is mysteriously under represented in the DVD catalogue. The work is performed quite often being relatively inexpensive to mount and suitable for smaller venues but the many productions haven’t led to many recordings. I have only been able to find one and that dates back to 1985 when it was recorded at Glyndebourne. That’s appropriate enough as that’s the house the piece premiered in in 1947. At least it’s a fair and effective representation of the work. Peter Hall’s production takes few liberties with the libretto and is a rather literal and effective, if necessarily somewhat caricatured, representation of life in a Suffolk village. The sets and costumes are evocative; especially the hall of Lady Billows’ house which really evokes a 17th century Great Hall and, as the view through the window tells us, is set in or close to the village, not in an isolated park. There’s quite a lot of that kind of attention to detail in this 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.