Grimes revisited

I returned from Shanghai on Friday morning expressly for the purpose of catching the last night of Opera Australia’s Peter Grimes.  I am very glad I did.

This production has been extensively documented on the internet, including by a number of people who went more than my two times, to the point that there is little I need or could add by way of detailed observation. Had I not been going away, I too would happily have gone more than merely twice – and I, too, had the chance (which I couldn’t take up) of company rush to assist me in such a project.

That, too, as I have commented elsewhere, is a cause for concern and dismay. What is the basis of the resistance to such a work which makes such company rush tickets possible or necessary?

I asked a colleague, and I know she is an opera-goer, if she had been. She told me she hadn’t. She didn’t like Britten, she said, because somebody had told her he was a Nazi sympathiser. She is Jewish, so this is a determinative factor for her. I said: “Don’t be silly. He was a homosexual pacifist who ran away to America along with Auden and Isherwood!” [OK: I was simplifying things a bit.] She said: “Auden was a Nazi.” Let’s just say I was stupefied. It’s not immoral, I suppose, to be ignorant, but some ignorance can be pretty shocking.

But back to the work, and the production.

First the work.

Seeing and hearing it again, what struck me was its dramatic sense, particularly in the pacing and juxtaposition of different moods and genre-moments. As with the Sinfonia da Requiem, there are moments of Shostakovian (or post-Mahlerian) grotesquery (the policemen’s scene from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk came to mind). There is comedy, pathos, tenderness, loudness and softness. There is dramatic preparation (for the storm, for example, but also, has been pointed out, between the party music and the subsequent roar of the crowd). Less notably (because it is an easier thing to achieve) though not less effectively, there is recapitulation and reminiscence. Another thing which really strikes me is the room the work allows for a variety of interpretation and response.

As to the production, my respect for it is enhanced. It is responsive to the text and the music in just so many ways. So much detail has been so very carefully thought out and executed.

I still have a niggling reservation about the postmodernish ramping up of the role of Dr Crabbe – is this really necessary? When he delights in the playfulness of the Borough boys (surely Crabbe as Britten here, nudge, nudge) I find it intrusive and even a little embarrassing, as well as heavy handed underlining – does the director think we won’t notice the lads without this? But conversely, despite all the business of clearing the hall of chairs during the passacaglia (which actually is co-ordinated brilliantly with the music), it is difficult to imagine the coup-de-theatre of the stage-within-a-stage moving forward working so well if it was simply left to the stage machinery to execute.

The ensuing scene in Grimes’s hut is the pithiest part of the production, and is masterful, both as to the circumstances of the boy’s death (caused by Grimes but, in a way, also by the mob) and the ending – both Balstrode’s detection of something amiss and Mrs Sedley’s.

Enough has been said elsewhere about the performances, which were uniformly excellent. Maybe Catherine Carby was on the youthful side for Auntie, but that is a question of casting rather than performance, and she did have a terrific 1940s look. I take back any earlier implicit criticism of Mark Wigglesworth’s musical direction.

It seems odd to complain, as Andrew Byrne does, that:

It seems unbalanced and unfair that most operas billed to be conducted by the musical director [ie: Richard Hickox] in recent years had internationally acclaimed casts singing with the best of Australia’s resident opera singers.

There have been expressions of regret that there has been no permanent visual record of the production made which might result in the issue of a DVD. If this were to require the use of the unsightly taped-on-head microphones preferred by the ABC for Cosi or Pinchgut (and, I think the ABC) for its own recordings, I could do without it: that is unthinkable. The use of such microphones is disfiguring and seems to me to be an example of management acceding to the easiest path proposed by technicians.

Apart from a revival (when can we get a cast to match this?) I am now looking forward to the less well-known opera, Marsha Grimes, about the lesbian vampire who abducted and ate all the little girls in the Borough and nobody even noticed. (Music by Ethyl Smith; libretto by Edith Sitwell or (maybe) Muriel Spark.)

One Response to “Grimes revisited”

  1. wanderer Says:

    Head mikes (let’s call them) are all but universal I think. They are railing against them in the USA, where they are buried in wigs and the like. You are right in that the technicians have got the upper hand and ‘have the power’ to control the performance dynamics to the unnatural extent today’s listeners demand. One suspects the art of getting live performance recorded with true dynamics, balance and perspective is fading. That said, the Peter Grimes broadcast (ABC live), in your absence, was particularly good. I would welcome anyone at that performance to comment on the broadcast technique. I was araldited to the couch.

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