The recently announced death of Jon Vickers has had me thinking a lot about connections. Vickers sang the title role in the second opera I saw live; Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in July 1975. Oddly, the first was The Rhinegold, at ENO, conducted by Reginald Goodall who also conducted the premiere performance of Peter Grimes in 1945. The summers of 1975 and 1976 were the first real chance, and the last for a while, that I had to see opera live. I worked those summer vacations in banks in central London which meant that I could use my lunchbreak to get a rush ticket for the evening performance. Living thirty miles out with a train to catch meant it wasn’t something I could do often but I did catch a couple of performances in each of those summers and, as I look back, there are so many beginnings and endings and connections.
So, another lip synched film from the 1970s. This time it’s Verdi’s Otello starring Jon Vickers and Mirella Freni. What makes this one a bit different is that Herbert von Karajan not only conducts but directs as well. It’s a curious piece with fantastic music making but no real production concept, continuity errors, some very dodgy acting and puzzling cinematography in places. It’s never dull though. Continue reading
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This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved.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
Grimes: 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
Grimes: 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.
When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.