What makes Peter tick?

Until I saw Britten's Peter Grimes last week at the English National Opera with surtitles, I hadn't realised how clunky and often silly Montagu Slater's libretto is. Or maybe I should say (by contrast), that I hadn't realised how fine is my late friend Myfanwy Piper's libretto for Turn of the Screw, or Britten and Peter Pears' redaction of Shakespeare for that of  Midsummer Night's Dream. The surtitles made Slater's clumsiness evident - if you shut your eyes you couldn't really make out many of the words. I confess I find this is almost always the case when opera is sung in English - even if English is the language of the libretto. It's all about consonants, innit? Though some of our English vowel sounds are, to say the least, unlovely when sung.

This is a real pain for Peter Grimes, though, because it contains some of Britten's best operatic writing, and not merely the six glorious sea interludes - but also many of the numbers. And there are numbers in this opera, some, such as "Auntie's" song,  influenced -  I learned from  the programme - by Cole Porter. And isn't there a wonderful homage (maybe parody) of Baron Ochs' Ohne mich and of the riot-at-the-inn scene of Rosenkavalier in the act three Moot Hall dance? - or did I just imagine this? In any case, musically this is a superb production. ENO music director Ed Gardner gets his band to play for all they're worth, and gets the same huge performance from the chorus, which has more work to do than in any opera I can think of, off the top of my head.
David Alden's new production at the Coliseum exaggerates the characters a bit, so that all except perhaps Grimes himself (sung supremely well by Stuart Skelton, whom I first saw as a jolly good Siegmund in the Australian Ring in Adelaide) and Ellen Orford (Amanda Roocroft continuing her well-merited comeback following her triumph as Jenůfa) are caricatures. Auntie is a 1930s/40s besuited, mink-coated Lesbian who wears a raised shoe for her club foot, the nieces are dressed as paedophile-bait, pig-tailed schoolgirls who abuse the dolls they carry, Bob Boles the Methodist fisherman is an out-of-control sex-and-booze addict, and Ned Keene the apothecary is a sleazy drug-pusher in the guise of a moustachioed matinée idol. Even poor Mrs Sedley, sung lovingly by Felicity Palmer, is a dope-fiend.
Still, this is the first Grimes I've seen that is not played in near darkness - thank you, lighting designer Adam Silverman. Paul Steinberg's corrugated metal sets are fine, even though the first act looks an awful lot like the first act set for Alden's recent ENO Jenůfa. Grime's precariously perched, too tidy hut is particularly handsome, and the act two beach scene is beautiful in an Edward Hopperish fashion.
My only complaint about the production is the handling of the chorus. It was usually blocked well, with few tedious straight lines to distress the eye. And their movement was wonderful, fluid and elegant - with the exception that there were some unconvincing co-ordinated hand movements. These should be left to Peter Sellars, and not attempted by any other director.
Finally, though you could almost understand Ms Roocroft's Ellen's being attracted to Peter, I left the Coliseum unable to see what made Peter tick. I'm sure David Alden has a view of this, but he failed to communicate it to me.

May 12, 2009 6:15 PM | | Comments (3)


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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on May 12, 2009 6:15 PM.

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