In the summer of seventeen hundred and ninety seven

Billy Budd is the second of Britten’s large scale operas.  Originally envisaged as a four act piece with prologue and epilogue it was later reorganised into two acts and that’s the version the BBC recorded and broadcast in 1966.  That broadcast has now been released on DVD.  Technically it shows it’s age.  The picture is 4:3 black and white though there’s a remastered, and very decent, LPCM mono sound track.  There’s also an enhanced Dolby mono track.  The video too has been restored and looks pretty decent.

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Paramore shall welcome woe

Various thoughts about the Channel 4 film of Britten’s Owen Wingrave led to me seeking out the original BBC TV version from 1970, now available on DVD.  It’s extremely interesting and worthwhile.  Britten himself conducts and the cast includes many of the people involved in the first productions of many other Britten operas.  They include Peter Pears (General Wingrave/Narrator), John Shirley-Quirk (Coyle), Benjamin Luxon (Owen), Janet Baker (Kate), Heather Harper Mrs.Coyle) and Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julian).  The quality of the music making is superb and I found myself constantly surprised and delighted by details brought out by Britten supported by the excellent English Chamber Orchestra.  At the same time, the fluent and idiomatic singing pointed up the excellence of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto.  This really is Britten at his best.

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Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all five 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This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved.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.

The ur Grimes

In 1969 the BBC’s new Director of Music and recording producer of genius, John Culshaw, contrived to align the heavens to permit the recording and broadcast for television of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. What’s more it was recorded on a stage set (at The Maltings) with the orchestra in the same room as the singers who sang ‘live’. So, unusually for the time there was neither a double studio set up nor a studio audio recording that was lip synched to the stage performance. There’s a great little essay in the DVD booklet that explains how this all came to pass.

All that said, it’s a 1969 TV broadcast and I expected it to be of largely historic interest. I didn’t expect to get completely sucked in which is what happened. The design and production is very literal. The Boar is a pub. Grimes’ hut is a hut and so on. The people of the Borough are dressed in a range of working class clothes of sometime in the 19th century. They don’t look like a flock of crows on a telephone wire. Oddly, this makes their conformity all the more telling. The direction is a collaboration between Joan Cross who, we are told, directed the singers and Brian Large (who must have been about twelve at the time) who directed the cameras. As you would expect for a 1969 TV production there are lots of close ups which is fine as there was no “house view” here. The orchestral interludes are played out to either abstract patterns (which sometimes look a bit like those gel slides popular in discos of the period) and continuity shots. We don’t see the orchestra or, worse, a heavily perspiring conductor. It’s all straightforward but effective. There are some interesting interpretative nuances. For example in the storm scene in the pub I’ve never seen Grimes’ otherness so well brought out. Also, it’s absolutely starkly clear that Ellen and Balstrode have given up on Peter during Act 2 Scene 1 but he persists most compellingly in his hope until the ‘prentice falls at the end of the act. Pears’ reading of the part at this point is so hopeful that I had to go back and check that the bit where he accuses the boy of betraying him hadn’t been cut.

The performances are mostly strong. Pears’ Grimes is what it is. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrical passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” are gorgeous. It’s not totally convincing though. When he punches Ellen it comes out of nowhere. This dreamy, haunted Grimes just doesn’t have the violent side that the Borough and, ultimately Ellen, see. Heather Harper’s Ellen is gorgeous. She sounds younger and sweeter than in the later Vickers recording. Bryan Drake’s Balstrode is well sung but he’s more of the Borough and less the more broadly travelled and worldly wise character than others make of him. Both Gregory Dempsey as Bob Boles and Elizabeth Bainbridge as Auntie are more delineated than is often the case and Ann Robson gives a decidedly sinister Mrs. Sedley. Other supporting roles are perfectly adequate. Britten conducts the LSO and gives, especially, in the interludes, an even more taut and compelling reading than on the audio recording with the ROH Orchestra ten years earlier. This, for sure, is definitive.

Technically this disc is amazingly good. The 4:3 picture is a bit soft grained but amazing for 1969 TV. The sound is “enhanced Dolby mono” and while, obviously, it doesn’t produce any width or depth it’s clear and bright. (There’s also LPCM mono but its not nearly as good). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.

All in all this is so much more than “just” a historical document. In every way it’s a performance worth watching.