Monday, 28 March 2022

The greatest Grimeses

There was Pears, of course - it was a surprise to me to find how fine an actor he was, as well as a singer, in the 1969 film of Peter Grimes conducted by Britten. But in my opera-going experience no-one can possibly be greater than the late Philip Langridge.

I saw him three times, twice in Tim Albery's very fine English National Opera production, and once in a Barbican concert performance conducted by Richard Hickox, where his pacing around at the foot of the stage before the final scene seemed horribly real. In fact his madness came across as not acted at all, which is why when we watched the scene in Grimes's hut in the fourth of my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on the work a few weeks ago, the students expressed concern for the (surely too young) boy he roughs up.

That of course wasn't a problem in Deborah Warner's production, now running at the Royal Opera, where the character of Grimes is softened to the point of sentimentality and he never manhandles his apprentice; the boy can touch him tenderly but it doesn't work (as far as I remember) the other way around. Cruz Fitz and Allan Clayton pictured below by Yasuko Kageyama.

Surely we're all in agreement that Allan Clayton manages every vocal aspect of the role superbly, but for me this fisherman wasn't a credible character. Note to director: you don't have to love the protagonist to feel pity for him.

The libretto does present difficulties, of course - how to tie up the visionary with the rough, abusive outsider? But not to have him strike Ellen in Act 2 Scene One - he knocks her to the ground in a scuffle as he makes off with the boy - is a step too far. I didn't like the keening over the corpse to the 'relief' of the Moonlight Interlude, either. This isn't the first time there's been a shying-away from the uncomfortable: I was astonished to discover that Jon Vickers changed two of the lines in the hut scene to avoid the physical assault on the boy (thus avoiding the con violenza written into the score)

Anyone coming to Grimes for the first time, or even after a long time of not seeing it in action, is bound to think 'this is the greatest' - that's partly because of the nature of Britten's inspiration, which as Mark Wigglesworth, recording a Zoom chat with me for one of the other classes after we'd listened to his Glyndebourne/LPO performance of the Passacaglia - the most electrifying I know - is 'bulletproof'.

Our first guest was the ever-generous and articulate Sue Bullock, who spoke with shocking frankness about playing Ellen Orford in the first run of the Albery ENO production - she alternated with Josephine Bartstow - to Langridge's Grimes. They both felt that the tension of the scene outside the church had built to such a pitch that to fake the slap diffused it. So SB gave PL the licence to hit her (that's me being astonished as she tells me below). And she remembers standing in the wings crying while Langridge himself wept real tears in the 'mad scene', then going home - still in tears - fretting that she hadn't done enough to save him. 

Talk about the role taking over (but I also remember Simon Keenlyside telling me how he paced the streets of London in the small hours after singing the finest Prince Andrey I think I'll witness in Prokofiev's War and Peace).

I was saving the equal generosity of Richard Jones, another regular visitor, for Samson et Dalila next term, which he convinced me was worth spending four or five Monday afternoons on (as did Nicky Spence, but alas, he's had to withdraw because of the steady convalescence needed to restore his two broken legs to full health). But we were so stunned by RJ's Milan production, which I ended up using the most when it came to playing full scenes on DVD, that I asked if he'd be willing to talk about it. 

Richard always declares that these things were too long ago to remember much, but then he goes and delivers fascinating and unexpected takes with great vividness. He was especially good (and funny) on the disjunct between music and text: 'part of my affection for it is this very extraordinary, eerie and incredibly memorable music combined with this Listen-With-Mother, Ealing vowel text, and I like that disparity very much'. 

Responding to Mark's comment about Grimes being 'bulletproof', he declared that 'there are certain pieces where you can have your day in the sun as a director - one is Jenůfa, another is Grimes'. 

So far he's only directed it once, but would be up for another shot (which, given his capacity for re-imagining, would probably be very different). I just don't think there could a more intense and upsetting experience than what he and his choreography Sarah Fahie get out of the Teatro alla Scala forces and the principals: all the more remarkable given the chorus's threat to walk out at one stage (or perhaps because of it: needless to say Jones enjoyed facing an angry mob). 

The two leading performances are devastating. John Graham Hall may not have the tonal beauty of a Pears or a Clayton, but like Langridge's, his is a Grimes on the edge from the start. 

It's the only time I've seen the Apprentice played by a teenager (Francesco Malvuccio, who spoke no English, but as Richard says, that may have been an advantage). So there's a boy who can stand up for himself a bit, but is still physically dominated by the abuser.

The biggest rethink is the role of Ellen Orford. Jones believes there are no good people at all in Grimes, and she's horribly deluded, an ex-cultist who never notices what's really going on. That doesn't stop us feeling pity for her as she falls apart. 

Susan Gritton sings and acts better than any other Ellen I've seen. Wigglesworth conducted her too, and advised me to get her along. By which time, alas, it was too late in the course and she was taken up with performances on the weekend we might have spoken. But we had a splendid email exchange. 

I was also hoping for another appearance from the supremely eloquent Robin Ticciati, who conducts the La Scala production magnificently, and who was looking forward to telling some memorable stories. But he was taken into hospital to be operated on for a kidney stone, so that was not to be ditto Felicity Palmer, who gives an interesting Auntie, but declared it wasn't a role she felt close to. No matter; we watched so much of the film, and I urge you to do so if you think a Grimes can't be more intense than the Royal Opera one. For me this is the greatest Grimes, while Langridge is the greatest Grimes. Get hold of the Arthaus Musik DVD of Albery's ENO production too, if you can.

These, for me, are benchmarks, and yet there was so much new and perceptive in the latest comer. I just didn't come away from it wrung out. To me it seemed that Clayton was a truly great singer who acted well, not a born singer-actor. But then RJ, who hadn't seen the production at the time of our conversation, reminded me of his astonishing delivery in the Royal Opera 4/4 staging of H K Gruber's Frankenstein!!!, and yes, that did make me think it was the director's job to bring out the best in him. I think the RO should bring back the film complete now that a star is truly born, but this minute is good enough to show you the audacity, weirdness and agility.


Liam mansfield said...

Very interesting and comprehensive. Poor nick spense. How did he break 2 legs? Most incontinent for him.he is a fine singer.rgank you

Liam mansfield said...

For me the orchestral music in Peter Grimes is its core.

David said...

Fell downstairs at the airport right at the beginning of the year, if I remember right. Yes, he is remarkable. And in a sense the orchestral music IS at the core - the Passacalia right in the centre of the opera is the deepest part of it. But the vocal writing is also amazing and, as Mark Wigglesworth pointed out, Britten is such a master of timing that he would (in MW's opinion) have made a very fine actor.

Liam mansfield said...

Re timing he was also an excellent accompanist open and eeady to all the nuances of a singer

Liam mansfield said...

Many if your readers are not responding.strange as your blogs are so interesting.

David said...

I've long given up expecting more than a handful of responses. As a naItural 'reactor' I do find it odd - especially so on Twitter now that, having joined last week after giving up on LinkedIn, I see how easy it is to comment or even to just like something. My musical colleagues mostly don't - they're all on transmit. Heigh ho.

Chris said...

I'm halfway to agreeing with Jones.
Ellen does have a lot to answer for.
Hobson would not have brought the second boy without her intervention.
And it was her plan just as much as Grimes's to make his fortune by solo fishing which required the exploitation of an apprentice in the first place.
While Boles rails against the apprentice system.
Too many productions seem to play down the fact that TWO BOYS DIED.
Though the second death is completely arbitrary. A structural weakness.
Still we enjoyed the ROH production a great deal.

David said...

Have you seen the Jones production on DVD? I keep having to say that THIS will show you what unremitting intensity and dramatic truth are all about in Grimes. And Sue Gritton's performance is the most powerful in the role of Ellen that I've ever seen.

I too enjoyed the Warner production a great deal. I don't know that it played down the deaths of the boys, though it should always be clear that Grimes is not a murderer, just an abuser and a dangerous individual whose actions lead to the deaths of the boys. And the second apprentice's death isn't entirely arbitrary: the boy is in extreme distress having been knocked about yet again by his master, and presumably doesn't take care - or hasn't even been told that the cliff has collapsed outside the hut. In several productions, Grimes has his hand and lets go of it at the knock on the door.

Howard Lane said...

I was looking forward to the Peter Grimes broadcast this Saturday after hearing an interview about it recently although I can't remember quite where. Still am, as I'm not at all familiar enough with it to have any firm opinions about the merits of different productions, apart from the sea interludes which are often broadcast and stop me in my tracks every time! I do remember that the production attempts to show the poverty and harshness of the community it's set in, suggesting perhaps that the characters are driven to act in the way they do.

David said...

Is that the screening that's been postponed? Or a Radio 3 broadcast? Not got time to check right now with limited internet access here by the shores of the Irish Sea. But I do urge you to get hold of the DVD of Jones's La Scala production - truly astounding.

Howard Lane said...

Yes it's a recording of the Deborah Warner production on R3 this Saturday! Hope you're enjoying Dublin and environs, not to mention the guinness.

David said...

It should sound wonderful, and the sentimental softenings which IMO mar the production won't be seen. And thanks, it's blissful weather hear in Dalkey, and we did a good cliff walk around Bray Head yesterday - all an unbelievable half an hour on the Dart train from the city centre.