Opera Australia, Peter Grimes
October 27, 2009
I was one of those on my feet for the standing ovation, mainly because this is one of the most astonishingly “integrated” opera performances I’ve seen in a long while. Four or five times a year of late, I go to Opera Australia mainstage productions and often I get the sense of things thrown together, in the nicest possible way of course (I wouldn’t be paying all that money if I didn’t a get a lot out of it), but along comes a production every now and again that feels “whole”, as if absolutely every detail has been considered in its own right and clearly linked to the expression of the whole. A lack of integration is what puts me off attending theatre. No, I had the distinct sensation that the players here had all been rehearsing or performing this for a lifetime, but of course I was watching the fifth night of a six-night run. It became very obvious to me very early in the night that this production has to win some sort of Green Room Award for best opera of the year.
I’m not going to attribute this ‘integrity’ to any one person in particular, though one naturally thinks of the director, but Neil Armfield never comes across as the tyrannical type. Noone came across as constrained or being forced to fit a directorial conception – voice and movement often give lie to what players want to do. One could point to Stuart Skelton in the lead role, but he never comes across or came across here as ‘it’s-all-about-me’; one could point to the tremendous cohesion of the chorus (has an opera given such a prominent role to the Chorus?); one could point to the arresting voice of Susan Gritton playing Helen Orford, to the delicate tracery of the choreography from Denni Sayers (the final scene brings tears to my eyes recalling it), to the simple but not down-at-heel set of Ralph Myers – when I heard about hints to a ‘community hall’ set at the OA/Sydney Conservatorium Symposium on Benjamin Britten, it conjured up something more tawdry, but I think Damien Cooper’s lighting design had a lot to provide in terms of giving it life. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth was able to lift the orchestral playing to an extraordinarily high level – it just sounded so much more alive than normal, with none of the usual ‘down-in-the-pit’ sound.
Highlights recalled as I read down the cast list:
Mark Wigglesworth, conductor. The interludes were perfect and the last was revelatory with the timbre of the woodwinds, an almost shakuhachi-like chiff pointing to a much later Curlew River. The Bernstein in the writing was clear but not overly. The orchestra showed enormous stamina right to the end – bouquets especially to those on flute. I thought the grand arcs and the smaller eddies (sea-like) of the set changing during the interludes was brilliant. I would drift off closing my eyes only to realise that I’d missed bits of entrancing choreography; chairs and tables became flotsam-and-jetsom, even stacking of chairs in the final Interlude became rivetting.
Neil Armfield, director and Ralph Myers, set designer. I’m a sucker for theatre-inside-theatre and as one who spends more than his fair share of time in community halls, I adored PG’s hut set up on the stage of the hall, used also as foci for the nieces and others, and of course the boys at final curtain. The chairs on the stage looked momentarily odd in the hut, but of course links us to the Borough, their influence being all-pervasive. The movement foreward of the stage for the hut scene had that feeling of putting something on a microscope slide. I was bit awry in the wake of Figaro some years back, which I thought was superbly set (after Velasquez, the Dutch School and Rembrandt) but let me down musically; a bit too much playing for laughs, but one does tend to ‘worship’ key arias and there’s always the commercial imperative of appealing to young audiences. However, his comments at the Britten symposium filled me with expectation and he delivered in spades. Other bloggers have mentioned Marrickville Town Hall, my ‘local’ as it were, but what struck me most was the clear space around the clock – there was no attempt to have every space ‘worked’ (to death). I had no trouble with the side doors as pub exits, combined with the lighting and the choreography I found them totally convincing.
Tess Schofield, costume design. The most memorable being PG, pointing up his awkwardness, the malevolence in Mrs Sedley, the frothy but not insubstantial nieces.
Denni Sayers, choreographer. Most illuminating was Kanen Breen’s Rev Adams when drunk. There is no end to Breen’s astonishing ability to portray character through movement. I’ve mentioned the poignancy of the final scene – I thought the boys ‘walking the tightrope’ of the ropes was as inspired as it is typical playground behaviour. There was none of the usual disjointedness in the movements of the Chorus. There’s a marvellous metaphor for teamwork and spirit among the Japanese in their natto beans – enough individuality in their separateness, but enough stickiness too in being able to work around each other like little molecules. I guess one needs to walk through a railway crowd at Osaka to get this across fully – thousands of people rushing at each other but nary anyone bumping or even touching. Anyway, that’s how the Chorus came across in their pub/community hall scenes.
Stuart Skelton, Peter Grimes. I’m not enough of a Britten scholar (and you’d have to say that Britten afficionados border on the scholarly when it comes to their knowledge of the oeuvre) to comment, but I was watching for the multiplicity of character traits – not just an over-riding, singular idee fixe – as mentioned by Skelton in a short interview by Margaret Throsby on ABC FM radio yesterday morning. It is, as he indicates, all about communication and lack of it. There is none of the blustery macho in evidence, there’s controlled (and bursts of) rage of course; the too-hitched-up oilskins and angular gesture speak volumes. I recalled a complex Vietnam vet I know – he’s not mad, not dangerous, but he’s not quite here either; you can’t begin to summarise him, and the same goes for Skelton’s PG. Were more singers able to convey such pyschological complexity, combined with this level of impeccable vocal power! And without inducing pity, as is often the case with operatic hard-done-bys. I wasn’t prepared for the power of the final chromatic descending melodic line in the final scenes, orchestra pit in complete darkness, surely Britten’s homage to Purcell, complete with references to the ‘hand’; it had a dazzling cadenza feel to it, with its ending in spoken words, words suddenly bereft of the emotional power and magic accorded to them by the music.
Boy, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke. I think young Nick may have gotten a guernsey in Madama Butterfly, I can’t be sure, with a truly tragic role there of seraaphic, far-away innocence. The seriously realistic choreography here was chilling and there were real links with the adults in this drama – none of the difficult interpolation of children onto the stage; kids have that unerring ability to throw the viewer into real-life (“uh-oh, here’s a kid on stage!”), a momentary jolt from the artifice and constructedness of stage production. Seamlessly done, and here I am peeling back onion layers of meaning and motivation: Orford and the Boy as loci of Britten’s psychology, the dynamics of adult relationships (reaching out, idealism, doubts) founded on childhood experiences, Grimes-as-Pears, Grimes-as-the-inner-Britten, Grimes/Orford as Pears/Britten, Crabbe and Britten’s father, the Borough as Father, getting anywhere at all through money in (post-war) Britten, social climbing in Britain and the struggle of the composer (moving from Tuesday House New York bohemia back to Grimesian love of roots), the whole hegemony of Family Church and State that a subsequent post-Stonewall generation would construct in an entirely new light, and on and on and on.
Susan Gritton, Ellen Orford. What a voice! I kept thinking this vocal power will be short-lived or fall away, but it never did. She was ‘integrated’ into the whole all of the time, never any imbalances in the acting or rapport with others. Apart from the solos, there was the magnificence of the quartet with the nieces towards the end. Her final pose on the floor was straight out of the famous American painting of the girl in the fields – I particularly enjoy Armfield’s references to painting. A beacon in the dark from the start, not just vocally, but as PG’s comrade in setting out anew – Britten-Pears returning home after the war and wanting to make a go of it amid the gossip, amid the hypocrisy, amid the smallness of the Borough, it’s all there.
Wonderful singing from Peter Coleman-Wright (throughout), Catherine Carby, Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig as the nieces (a lot going on here, so much nuance conveyed in character and choreography, building to the quartet towards the end), Bob Boles as the Methody (thoroughly convincing, young enough for certain aspects of character to come through yet old enough too for other parts as well), Richard Anderson (absolutely brilliant opening lines, articulation pointed up with hand movements), Elizabeth Campbell as widow Sedley, Andrew Moran, Jud Arthur (glad to see him in a ‘real-life’ role for a change, Giovanni ghost and Butterfly spirit notwithstanding – great presence, great voice) and a surreal combination of the everyday, the involved and the distant in Peter Carroll as Dr Crabbe.
“Billy Budd” rocked me to the core last year, with its set in particular (something that can never be captured on the two-dimensionality of film unfortunately) and so I feel particularly privileged to have seen both that and this Peter Grimes. As one who is dragging my feet in terms of coughing up the huge sums of money for a Choose-Your-Own subscription next year (I’ve grown quite attached to the seats in the back stalls), I’m wondering whether next year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream means I should take the plunge. Means I have to tackle the Gale novel in which it appears, but am now on the treadmill of Britten’s trajectory from PG to Death in Venice. It is worth the personal transformativeness of the experience. The final sweep of De Vere from the stage in the very last seconds of “Billy Budd” recalled my father (the whiteness agains the dark) who I’d lost a year previously so that single searing moment will always be at the core of the memory of this opera for me, but I note that probably the three most personally memorable operas at the Sydney Opera House – Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Batavia – have all been about the sea, at this particular opera house projecting out into the harbour – one moves as an audience member ‘on to’ the harbour to the house and move ‘from’ it when leaving. Give me no maritime operas on landlocked terra firma!
And what has all this to do with viol music? Well, Britten was after all English. And I kept considering the blast of Americanness the first British audiences must have felt in hearing this music. And I kept wondering why PG electrified them immediately post-war (though it’s obvious why this opera should be so popular as an example of C20 opera around the world since): the storms-as-the Blitz, the outsider conchies and the hypocrisy of the Borough individuals. But in recalling the Englishness of the writing, one can’t help make links with English choral and instrumental music (the long notes of the Pleiades aria). I’m disappointed that noone in the gamba world has carefully examined Britten but then most contemporary gamba music is coming out of America and English gamba players spurn the contemporary. I’m not advocating an arrangement of the interludes for viols for example by any means. I just think that with so much potential for drawing on old and new English music, gamba players and composers for gamba could be really doing themselves a favour by looking closely at Britten.