Review: Peter Grimes, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 9

The successful London premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945 was a milestone for the composer. It firmly established his reputation and was immediately taken up by other opera houses. Although firmly established as a favourite amongst opera lovers it has rarely been heard in Suffolk due to the lack of a venue able to accommodate such a large-scale work.

For the centenary of Britten’s birth the Aldeburgh Festival arranged two concert performances of the opera, the first one opening the festival. A cast of fine singers had been assembled along with choruses from Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Britten –Pears Orchestra.

Rarely have the sharp, rhythmic opening bars made such an impact and they set the standard for what was to follow. The orchestral players were magnificent, their skill and passion giving an extra immediacy and frisson to this most original and arresting music.

Alan Oke, in the role of Grimes, was superb. Although neither physically nor vocally large his performance was full of intelligent insight and he struck a particularly sympathetic note in ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home.’

Giselle Allen gave a fine rendering of Ellen Orford, reaching out towards Grimes but ultimately unable to save him and her aria ‘Embroidery in Childhood’ in the final act was quietly noble and affecting.

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The other parts were filled with equal flair and distinction and all deserve mention, David Kempster as the wise and realistic Balstrode, Henry Waddington a powerful Swallow and Robert Murray giving a nice cameo as the inebriated Bob Boles. Christopher Gillett was credible as the Rev. Adams, ultimately powerless in the grip of village hatred and hysteria, Charles Rice gave a rakish edge (enhanced by red socks) to Ned Keene and Stephen Richardson’s powerful bass gave an added menace to the lugubrious Hobson. Catherine Wyn-Rogers made a real mark as the scheming Mrs Sedley, Gaynor Keeble was a strong, no-nonsense landlady and Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford were delightful as her nieces with their playful interactions and clear, bright voices.

Some may consider a concert performance of an opera to be a compromise and rather less than the real thing. Of course we forgo costumes, sets and the opportunities for showcase displays. Yet there are real gains – one is less distracted by stage goings-on, more orchestral detail comes through and smaller vocal parts are more clearly heard. Steuart Bedford, whose work with Britten included the world premiere of the composer’s last opera, conducted with compelling and absolute authority.

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Grimes is already established as one of the great operas but we still need an occasional performance to remind us how good it really is and how proud we in Suffolk should be of Britten and this opera in particular. We can all walk a little taller this morning.

Gareth Jones

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