Cribbed from Crabbe

nla peter grimesTonight to the first night of Peter Grimes.

When the curtain rose, the assembled people of the borough faced us in contemporary-with-the-opera’s-composition garb for the inquest prelude in what seemed a loving tribute to OA’s rehearsal space, Marrickville Town Hall, masquerading as something more like the Aldeburgh/the Borough parish hall. Actually, Marrickville Town Hall is finer than that: it was more like Rockdale Town Hall, home of the Rockdale Opera Company. It was a spectacular (if spectacularly drab) set, but I knew that was the only one we were going to get.

As a result, there was a lot of necessary suspension of disbelief, as the hall had to stand for strand and pub. Oh, Mr Armfield, I thought to myself: do we have to have these actors’-exercise sorts of things? Maybe I’ve just not got over when NA wrote me out of a Sydney Uni production of Bartholomew Fair (he was tutoring in English and doing an MA in (I think) Ben Jonson at the time, though fame took him away, I think, before he ever finished it), because I didn’t come to enough rehearsals – which was, in turn, in part because I couldn’t see the point of all those exercises.

Enough of ancient grudges.

The production does manage a coup-de-theatre which I won’t spoil by revealing here.

But much is gained. Expectations have been high, and they have been met. Stuart Skelton is terrific as Grimes (more Vickers than Pears, though there is one colaratura spot in the writing which is ineluctably Pearsian), and Susan Gritton, apart from some oddly slow to speak higher soft notes, impressive as Ellen. I wished there could have been more for Peter Coleman-Wright to sing. The period setting adopted enabled Elizabeth Campbell to play Mrs Smedley as a kind of crazed Miss-Marple-wannabe, though this was more comic than threatening. The lesser parts were all strongly cast and well-delivered – the men get a better go than the women in this. I did think there was the occasional ensemble scrappiness. Mark Wigglesworth was not much inclined to let the heart-stopping moments linger.

The thing is: Grimes really is a great work, and not just in the euphemistic sense. It has wonderful moments for the orchestra, and when the chorus of borough inhabitants’ ire is raised, it has some of the loudest and most thrilling noises in the repertoire. Perhaps there are just a few twee bits: “Joe has gone fishing” makes me think of “Old Abram Brown,” and Britten managed the idea better in Billy Budd. Which is to say that a lot of the credit must go to the work. I also remember that the last production (pictured above) made a similarly strong impression on me.

The libretto is based on a poem by George Crabbe, and includes, as a non-speaking part, “Dr Crabbe.” This is the one aspect of this production that I do have misgivings about, as “Dr Crabbe” – the author within the action – assumes the role of stage manager and even eventually cradles the crazed Grimes in his madness. (The original poem is rather less sympathetic to Grimes.) I didn’t warm to this. It was fiddly and distracting, both as a source of business during the interludes for the scene changes which weren’t needed and as an authorial commentary on Grimes’s fog-harried (we had to imagine the fog, of course) confusion.

There is a lot of drinking of cups of tea in the parish hall. As a matter of design, I thought the choice of teacup was totally wrong. It should have been Beryl, as found in every English parish hall from the period and featured in Foyle’s War:

woods green beryl

In a re-run of the last first night I attended, I really am off to Shanghai tomorrow. I have made sure that I will be back just in time for the last night of the run. That’s because I expected it to be good, and, despite the little gripes above, it really is very, very good. I cried twice.

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