Returning Britten's dark social parable Peter Grimes to the sea

With the Aldeburgh Festival's production of Peter Grimes on the Beach, director Tim Albery has created a site-specific opera that avoids cliché to provide an allusive blur of fact and fiction.

Peter Grimes on the Beach
Aldeburgh Beach, Aldeburgh Festival 

There isn’t a venue in all of Suffolk large enough to stage Benjamin Britten’s twentieth-century operatic classic Peter Grimes. It’s an irony that the Suffolk-born composer himself would surely have enjoyed – a mildly surreal situation that highlights the tension between the fame and notoriety that Peter Grimes brings to the county, and the sleepy, holiday-lets-and-fishing-boats reality of the place. But in this centenary year of Britten’s birth practicalities couldn’t stand in the way of ambition, and so the boldest, least practical musical project of 2013 was born: staging Peter Grimes on the very Aldeburgh beach on which it is set – wind, waves, water and all.

The concept of “site-specific” theatre has recently become something of a cliché, and one to which opera certainly hasn’t been immune. Used to encompass everything from performances of La bohème in a pub to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in a disused warehouse, the term has lost its creative energy as the locations have lost their, well, specificity, becoming instead a crutch for directors light on concept and heavy on postmodern affectation. But in Peter Grimes on the Beach we have a rare beast – a staging whose site couldn’t be more specific if it tried, and a director in Tim Albery whose vision is full of emotional and conceptual substance.

Geography has rarely been a favourite subject among composers. Operas tend to be wilfully unspecific about their locations, using them for exotic colour or context, but rarely for anything deeper. Bellini’s I Puritani rather creatively locates Plymouth in Scotland, while Puccini roamed freely among fantasy landscapes, creating essentialised visions of Japan (Madama Butterfly) and West Coast America (La Fanciulla del West). But Peter Grimes, the product not only of Britten but Suffolk poet George Crabbe, is rigidly locked into the bleakly beautiful geography of England’s East Coast.

And so, as we all made our wellied-and-waterproofed way onto the beach on a blustery evening in June, it felt like the inevitable thing to do, to return Britten’s dark social parable to the sea from whence it came. The crackle and hiss of the North Sea on shingle beach underpins the entire opera, surfacing most memorably in the fifth of the Sea Interludes. Here Britten’s uncannily evocative version duetted with the real thing, sending a shiver through us that had little to do with the vicious wind. We watched Bulstrode and Grimes push his boat down the beach one final time, watched the villagers of the Borough walking home from church across the pebbles, and saw an allusive blur of fact and fiction.

Relocating the tale to the time of its composition, Albery gave us a wartime setting that framed this domestic tragedy in the broader tragedy of an entire nation. A 1940s Spitfire dipped low above Leslie Travers’ stage at the start, offering us a sense of distance and perspective systematically denied us in Britten’s claustrophobic, introspective tale, reminding us of a world, not just a community, in flux.

The spectacle of Peter Grimes on the Beach was always going to be the thing, and musically the Aldeburgh Festival took the pragmatic steps of recordings the live performance given a few weeks earlier at Snape, and combining live vocal elements with a pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack. Conductor Stuart Bedford had the unenviable task of keeping the two united, and barring a few technical issues achieved extraordinary feats. The all-female quartet from Act II was exquisite, and the awkward 7/4 round Old Joe Has Gone Fishing stayed on track even as so many in the opera house have faltered. The balance however was never quite right, with orchestra and often chorus sadly muffled and some odd details amplified beyond all sense of proportion. Britten’s floated, pianissimo moments (notably Grimes’ own “Now the Great Bear”) were sacrificed to the wind, leaving first-timers with little idea of their potency.

But these are quibbles dwarfed by the miracles that were achieved here. Though Alan Oke will never match for me the rough magic of a Vickers or a Skelton, he does bring a Pearsian otherness that only added to the sense of the uncanny in this setting. His was a performance of technical mastery in such conditions, only exceeded by Giselle Allen’s Ellen Orford (benefitting from rather better amplification), whose human warmth was palpable even as the gale picked up through the evening. Excellent support came from David Kempster as Balstrode and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a wonderfully macabre Mrs Sedley.

Battling the same elements that beat down the inhabitants of Britten and Crabbe’s Borough as we watched the opera, there was no one in the audience of the Aldeburgh Festival’s Peter Grimes on the Beach who won’t carry back with them into the opera house the rasp of Suffolk’s seagulls, the roll of its waves, and a more vivid sense of Britten’s masterpiece. When Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945, re-openeing the Royal Opera House after the war, it was credited with re-inventing a genre, with bringing new audiences and a new voice to a tired medium. Soon to be released in cinemas, Peter Grimes on the Beach may yet do the same, proving that just occasionally “stepping outside the box” of theatre can be more than a cliché. 

Now find out why an obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into "state-funded tribute bands".

 

The cast on stage for the first night of Peter Grimes on the Beach. Photograph: Getty Images
BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.