Stuart Skelton (right) as Peter Grimes. Image: ENO.
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It may have come a year too late, but the ENO’s Peter Grimes is no postscript

A year after the Britten centenary, David Alden’s Peter Grimes presents us with a society and a community irretrievably damaged, while the English Touring Opera’s King Priam is a domestic drama, hamstrung by matters of scale.

It takes a brave company to stage a major Britten revival the year after the composer’s centenary. Last year saw England saturated with the composer’s music; even die-hard fans were begging for respite. But even with the memory of Aldeburgh’s astonishing Grimes on the Beach still fresh in eyes and ears, English National Opera’s Peter Grimes is no postscript. David Alden’s dark, postwar reading was startling back in 2009, and this first revival if anything finds more intensity, more horror in its shadows.

Relocating the action to 1945, Alden presents us with a society and a community irretrievably damaged. In an opera that both musically and dramatically pits individual against collective, it’s revealing to have these categories dissolved and obscured, creating counter-currents against the inescapable pull of Britten’s North Sea and its tragic conclusion.

Resident pimp and publican “Auntie” (the magnificent Rebecca de Pont Davies) becomes an androgynous creature fresh from Weimar cabaret, stalking the stage in a pinstriped suit. The Nieces (Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan) become the girlish mannequins of a horror film – full-grown children clutching dolls, their emotions so bastardised and blunted as to find expression only in the jerky repeated motions of automatons. Ned Keane the apothecary (a brilliant, surreal turn by Leigh Melrose) and even the aged Mrs Sedley (Felicity Palmer) round out a cast of grotesques whose ticks and quirks reach a horrific climax at the Moot Hall dance.

Against these cartoonish creatures are silhouetted the opera’s central characters – Ellen, Peter, Bulstrode. Thanks to such strong casting, they emerge with rare clarity. Stuart Skelton returns as a man-child Grimes – a villain who had no hand in his casting, who doesn’t know his own strength. There’s an innocence to Skelton’s Grimes that chafes exquisitely painfully against the strength and masculinity of his singing. Only in “Now the Great Bear…” do we glimpse the fragile, broken soul within. The major change to the 2014 cast is the addition of the South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen. Forthright and tender, she matches Skelton for humanity, finding desperate hopefulness in the beautiful music in which Britten conjures her dreams.

But the real stars here are the chorus. Bolstered to enormous numbers under the vivid, bold direction of Edward Gardner, they deliver the shattering blows that will break any audience. In a single moment they transform proscenium opera into music drama, standing at the edge of the stage and delivering those great, accusatory cries of “Peter Grimes!” Gardner may be leaving ENO, but in this Grimes, in his careful work with chorus and orchestra, he leaves them with quite a legacy.

At the other end of the spectrum from the sprawling societal tragedy of Peter Grimes is the domestic conflict of Michael Tippett’s King Priam. It’s a curious work, one that takes the giant scope of the Trojan War and examines not its battlefields and widescreen vistas, but the human drama playing out in tents and homes, between husbands and wives, fathers and sons. Spare scoring reflects this intimacy, stripping away strings altogether in Act II except for a lone guitar. In English Touring Opera’s new production things are even more sinewy than usual, with the work performed in Iain Farrington’s reduced orchestration.

It’s a piece that should work in the confines of small regional theatres and the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre but doesn’t quite. This is partly an issue with the orchestra. Banished with the conductor Michael Rosewell behind a curtain at the back of the stage, Tippett’s telling instrumental lines are muffled and oddly distanced from the voices with which they duel and dialogue. The voices, by contrast, are painfully dominant, taking rather too literally Tippett’s instructions for a “tough” and “declamatory” style.

Charne Rochford’s Achilles yells at us with as much artistry as he can muster at such painful heights and volumes, and Roderick Earle’s Priam is little better. His voice seems oddly hollowed-out – a husk, stripped of most body and meat by Tippett’s thankless vocal writing. The women fare better, and Laure Meloy’s Hecuba and Camilla Roberts as Andromache command their all-female scenes with authority and the only emotion on show here.

The designer Anna Fleischle’s sets and costumes set us in a quasi-authentic 1950s classical drama, complete with animal skins, togas and loincloths. Such literalism doesn’t help this Brechtian drama’s cause, anchoring it in specificity when it would rather be free to roam among abstractions. Director James Conway obviously believes in the work, but his attempts to persuade his audience to share his conviction are thwarted at almost every turn by Tippett himself.

This is ambitious writing, but in its quest for artistic excellence it doesn’t bother itself with decorative details such as beauty. It’s a tough ask for any audience to warm to a piece that so consistently and aggressively rejects their interest and affection.

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times