Others are way more qualified to write about opera than I am, but I want to enthuse a little. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the scenario: someone who’d done a half-show at the previous OA production he attended raved to me about Peter Grimes. Enthusiastic reports came from one, two, three other trusted sources. So I knew I had to go, especially since I still bear the bruises from kicking myself for missing Billy Budd. The final prod came in the form of an attractive rush price. Now there were no “barriers”, as the marketing bods would say. It turned out to be one of those nights where I saw a lot of familiar faces. Heaps of industry acquaintances and colleagues, performers, various “important people”, the odd composer. This was good to see: an audience full (literally full) of the kind of people whose opinions are likely to hold sway.
I’d not seen this opera or listened to it in its entirety before. Like many orchestrally biased music-lovers, my appreciation is for the Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes. But I’m not sure I’ve seen any Opera Australia production that I’ve liked better, has been better sung and played, or made more musical and dramatic sense.
The storm-painted curtain opens on a period piece, a town hall in all its sturdy detail, an interior not from the early 19th century but c.1940. It’s Britten’s era, in other words, not Crabbe’s, and Britten’s sympathies emerge unhindered. The hall becomes the set for the whole opera, shifting easily from indoor to outdoor communal spaces with just the subtlest of variations (some of them carried out by possibly the most illustrious stage-hand ever: Peter Carroll as the silent Dr Crabbe). There are basically no private spaces in this opera, barring one, which I’ll get to.
The set conveyed no real sense of the sea, and you could argue that this is a (minor) weakness when the music so overpoweringly redolent of the sea. But there’s reason in the madness, I think. First, the music needs very little help; its evocations are even more powerful for not being mirrored in any literal or naturalistic attempt to represent the sea or the shore. Second, and more important, it allows us to step back slightly from the plot and see the theme: this is an opera that ultimately is about community, public opinion, and gathering together vs social isolation and rejection. I think we can be sympathetic to Britten’s Grimes in a way that it’s nearly impossible to feel for the Crabbe Grimes because he’s recast as the dreamer and an outcast, battling futilely against an implacable, tight-knit community. Crabbe, on the other hand, portrays a Grimes whose sole motivation seems to be the desire to exert power over a weaker character. You don’t go all weepy when he goes mad with despair. You do when Stuart Skelton does.
The one truly private space is Grimes’s hut, in Act II. Here Neil Armfield proved that less is more. There’s an interlude. Dr Crabbe methodically clears the stage, then moves to the curtained platform at the rear of the hall and beckons it forward. And the whole wall moves, slowly, inexorably to the front of the stage proper. It’s the simplest thing, really, but the effect was oppressive and somehow damning. Shudder.
From Britten himself came tiny discoveries and exquisite pleasures. Some of the text setting in Widow Sedley’s part is astonishingly effective, with such striking colours in the accompaniment. Her amateur sleuthing and predictions of doom are clearly meant to be a pain in the proverbial, but I didn’t want it to stop.
There was no faulting the cast: Skelton as Grimes; Peter Coleman-Wright as Balstrode; Susan Gritton as the one character I can’t quite understand, Ellen Orford; some serious-looking casting in the supporting roles and an adorable pair of “Nieces”. Aside from the mad scene (or the scene in which the orchestra switches off its sconces and Grimes’s life totally falls apart), Skelton had me wowed with his amazing pianissimos. At one point he was singing so softly while projecting so unerringly, that, as was commented to me, it was as if he was singing from offstage. And then to bloom from that into a perfectly shaped crescendo. Stunning. Is there nothing he can’t do? But always in the service of the music. The same is to be said for Coleman-Wright.
I’m not sure how to sum this one up, because everything seemed so right and so wonderful and so moving. Let’s just say it was, without hesitation or question, a “stay to the end” evening at the Opera House. And that’s high praise.