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Peter Grimes is a thrilling and moving staging of the great English opera
Review: Peter Grimes, Brisbane Festival
Peter Grimes, one of the centrepiece events of this year’s Brisbane Festival, is a remarkable collaboration between the festival, Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. In the words of the festival’s artistic director, David Berthold, “This kind of collegial cooperation is one of the great characteristics of Brisbane’s arts and cultural environment.”
It is the first time in 60 years that this opera has been performed in Brisbane. This much-anticipated presentation was to be headlined by an internationally acclaimed interpreter of the role, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton. Unfortunately, due to illness, Skelton was forced to withdraw from singing the second and third acts. Understudy Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, another internationally acclaimed performer of the role, sang from side-stage while Skelton performed the staging.
Although this was not always ideal for the audience’s suspension of disbelief, particularly for the final scene, the genius of Benjamin Britten’s music, performed with outstanding clarity by the orchestra and conductor Rory Macdonald, along with some excellent vocal performances led to a thrilling and memorable evening.
Britten’s Peter Grimes premiered in 1945, when the composer was 31. It is considered the great English opera of the 20th century.
The central character is an outsider in a small fishing village community filled with many recognisable personalities. In the prologue, Grimes stands accused of killing his apprentice at sea. Although he is found not guilty, for the remainder of the opera he faces the wrath and rumours of the village, which ultimately leads to tragedy.
The work can be viewed as an examination of the individual versus the community and the sinister potential of the collective: “Now is gossip put on trial” (as the chorus sings at a pivotal moment). Britten and librettist Montagu Slater manage to draw a sympathetic character in Grimes, even though the audience witnesses him displaying brutal behaviour towards his friend and confidante, Ellen Orford (played by English soprano Sally Matthews), and new apprentice (Riley Brooker on opening night).
Some commentaries view Grimes’s “otherness” as an allegory for Britten’s own homosexuality (which was not decriminalised in the UK until 1967). Others have implied some characteristics of autism or, at least, a desire to be accepted without a full understanding of what is required by society.
Regardless of the subject matter, Britten’s music is astounding. His use of the orchestra to depict the sea as an extra character in the drama shows his mastery. Britten’s ability to set the English language to music with conversational lilt is unparalleled.
He also challenges some of the conventions of opera with a penultimate scene for the title character, Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode (Mark Stone) that is largely unaccompanied until, finally, even the music disappears as the despair of the situation increases and the actors speak the final lines.
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and conductor Rory Macdonald are heroic in their playing of this masterpiece. To single out a particular section would not suitably reflect the quality of playing that maestro Macdonald drew from the orchestra. Some highlights were the shimmering unison strings in the first sea interlude, a magnificently balanced and clear brass section throughout, and a gorgeous viola solo in the Passacaglia.
This semi-staged production by English director Daniel Slater, with an evocative lighting design by David Walters and set and costumes by Bill Haycock, uses simple but effective stage movement to clearly delineate the narrative and locations of the fishing village and Grimes’s hut. Notable details included Grimes’s return to the sea at the end of the opera, in the same way he entered; the thrilling call to arms of Hobson’s drum (played by Jud Arthur); and flaming torches combined with a crude effigy for the final hunt scene.
The biggest challenge of a concert presentation of an opera such as this, however, is maintaining the balance between the singers and orchestra. The large orchestration was written to be contained in an orchestra pit, so vocal lines were not always clearly heard over the accompaniment, particularly when the chorus was seated in the choir stalls behind the orchestra.
The 58-member chorus, immaculately prepared by chorus master Jillianne Stoll, provided some thrilling moments, though, including the chilling “Grimes” chords in the third act and the gorgeous rich, unison melody of “Oh hang at open doors the net” at the beginning of act one scene one.
In the first act Skelton delivered some impressive singing that clearly demonstrated why he is the leading interpreter of this role internationally. Grimes’s position as the outsider was clear from his first entrance and Skelton’s commitment to this character immediately evoked sympathy from the audience. Although some of the upper range was not entirely secure due to his illness, the incredible range of dynamics in his voice and extraordinary legato line provided some thrilling vocal moments.
Lloyd-Roberts, taking over the singing of the title role after interval, presented emotive singing and a strong vocal tone. Although diction sometimes required more clarity, his singing of Grimes’s act two scene two aria and final soliloquy were incredibly moving. Lloyd-Roberts also performed the role of Reverend Horace Adams and must be congratulated on this herculean achievement.
Matthews performed the role of Ellen Orford with beautiful tone and legato line throughout the vocal and dynamic range. At times there were slight concerns about projection and diction. However, her Embroidery Aria in the third act was a highlight, maintaining a lovely sense of English restraint both vocally and dramatically.
The male cast were particularly impressive throughout the performance. English baritone Mark Stone was a strong vocal and dramatic presence as Captain Balstrode. Australian singers Bradley Daley, Andrew Collis, Michael Honeyman and Jud Arthur all brought outstanding singing and clear diction to their roles.
Hayley Sugars’ Auntie was a clearly drawn character, but was not always clearly heard over the orchestration, while Nieces Katie Stenzel and Natalie Christie Peluso provided some amusing recognisable characterisations. The female quartet, with Auntie, the Nieces and Ellen, was a particularly poignant moment gloriously sung as these characters shifted from comedic to sympathetic. The women ask, “Do we smile or do we weep or wait quietly ‘til they sleep?”, discussing the fate of women in a male-dominated society often tinged with violence. It is tragic that this commentary is still relevant in the wake of the #metoo movement and disturbing national statistics on domestic violence.
So many of the themes explored in this work are still relevant today, particularly the importance of community and its potential to cause tragedy. The strong musical performances of this semi-staged presentation and the sheer power of Britten’s music remind us that “when horror breaks one heart, all hearts are broken”.
Peter Grimes is being staged as part of the Brisbane Festival until September 22.