fri 06/12/2019

Peter Grimes, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Gardner, RFH review - more instrumental than vocal intensity | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Grimes, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Gardner, RFH review - more instrumental than vocal intensity

Peter Grimes, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Gardner, RFH review - more instrumental than vocal intensity

Superlative playing and conducting, some fine singing, but the protagonist is a bit peaky

Stuart Skelton as a distracted Grimes in his hut with the new apprentice (Samuel Winter)All images by Mark Allan

"Sadler's Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman?," a cheery bus conductor is alleged to have called out around the time of this towering masterpiece's premiere in 1945. The side of a "Grimes bus" today would probably proclaim over Britten and the work itself the "brand" of two stalwart perfomers - conductor Edward Gardner and leading protagonist Stuart Skelton, dominant forces of the opera over the last ten years.

With English National Opera and more recently presenting his Bergen Philharmonic as one of the finest orchestras in the world - last night's concert performance proved the point - the agile Gardner has gone from strength to strength. Yesterday evening, though, was not the best for Skelton. If he wasn't well, there was no announcement; more likely years of singing the big Heldentenor repertoire have taken their toll on the upper register, where he either has to take the full baritonal weight up or sing in a less than reliable head voice.

This Grimes has the heft, but he also needs the visionary gleam, the silveriness which goes with the flashing of fishes in water from flutes and harp (superb here) in "We sailed into the wind," a haunting beauty for the stilling of "Now the great bear" (written for Peter Pears's strongest note, a high E). There was always the worry that the voice might crack up there, and Skelton seemed to share it; the scene in the hut where the increasingly demented fisherman veers between nostalgic dreaming and paranoia came across as unfocused, lacking the ideal tension, though the final monologue could take any amount of instability. I didn't quite buy the "mad acting" this time, though, and wasn't moved. Roderick Williams as Captain BalstrodeSkelton's high watermark, of the performances I've witness from 2009 onwards was the one in this same hall with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic - a more fully realised "concert staging". Vera Roslin Wexelin's direction last night was minimal, shirking the physical violence - no blow when Grimes lashes out against his would-be helper, the teacher Ellen Orford; no brutality against the new apprentice (Samuel Winter). Even so, there were performers with plenty of stage experience to make their roles vivid, supremely and economically so Roderick Williams' Captain Balstrode (pictured above), Marcus Farnsworth's Ned Keene and Clive Bayley, stepping in for an indisposed Neal Davies to kick off proceedings in the case of Grimes's first dead apprentice at the Moot Hall. It was good to hear proper rather than character singing from Robert Murray's "Methody" Boles and the ever-clarion James Gilchrist as smug Reverend Adams. Scene from RFH Peter GrimesThe women were mostly less clear, at least from where I was sitting. Erin Wall has the ideal lyricism and occasional dramatic backbone for Ellen Orford, so classy in the "Embroidery Aria", but I missed the intensity of the Sunday morning scene. Susan Bickley's Auntie and Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Mrs Sedley lacked the definition you'd expect from them in a shrewd production, while the two "Nieces" were the only vocal disappointment. It was a bold idea to have three concert choirs from Bergen blended with Royal Northern College of Music students for a 145-strong wall of sound in the big climaxes (full ensemble pictured above), but though they sang from memory and dressed in character, you didn't get the sense of an involved operatic chorus. There's ultimately no substitute for a fully realised production of this stage-aware masterpiece. Gardner and the Bergen PhilharmonicFor the orchestra, though, no praise would be too high. Perhaps there's also room for an interpretation with more dark undertow, but Gardner moulded every phrase, drawing vibrant tones from hyper-sophisticated strings, rising to incandescent fury in the Dawn and Storm interludes. Every little detail, like the gutty pizzicati for the Nieces' wailing in the gale and the flurries of the magnificent Passacaglia, hit home with renewed realisation of Britten's genius at every turn. The best singers of all, perhaps, were principal viola Ilze Klava in the loneliest moments of Act Two, vivid leader Melina Mandozzi in the melancholy of the dance-hall waltz - shades of Berg's Wozzeck -  and oboist Oliver Nordahl, more soul-piercing in a single phrase before the final scene than Skelton, on this occasion, managed thereafter. The total triumph of the evening, then, rested with Gardner and his magnificent players. We need them back in concert at the Festival Hall, and soon.

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