A performance of Peter Grimes in Aldeburgh to celebrate the Britten centenary seems loike one of those things that had to happen. The snag, of course, being that none of the performance venues there is remotely suitable. The idea of staging it on the beach was a brilliant, if problematic, idea and it’s good that it was captured on film and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
That all said, what we get on disk is very much a film in its own right rather than a straight video recording of the stage show. From the introductory Spitfire, clearly locating us in 1945, to the film sequences during the orchestral interludes, to the digitally altered skies we are seeing a lot of things that the audience freezing on the beach did not. We do though get to see the “stage” action and if we can’t get the full experience of spending three hours watching opera on a Suffolk beach we can, at least see, the conditions the singers were contending with. It’s also fascinating watching day change to night as the piece progresses.
What then of Tim Albery’s production? It’s fairly straightforward and literal relying mainly on detailed direction of the actors. The set is realistic though with effective use made of a couple of mast/towers on the stage. It sticks pretty closely to a 1945 aesthetic though the picky might ask how much bottled beer was drunk in Suffolk villages in 1945. It’s really a pretty typical Grimes looking and feeling not so very different to three or four other productions by British directors that are making the rounds of the world’s opera houses.
The singing is a bit mixed. No doubt this was in good measure due to the difficult performing conditions but, overall, it’s not up to the standard of the competing Zürich or Metropolitan Opera recordings. The stand out is Alan Oke in the title role. He gives a reading very much in the Peter Pears tradition; reflective and delicate rather than declamatory. Nobody else, bar perhaps Philip Langridge, has explored the role in this way since Pears. Those who think Grimes is an avatar of Tristan or Siegfried will probably be less impressed than I. David Kempster is a serviceable Balstrode and Giselle Allen has her moments as Ellen but seems to be struggling with the conditions. The orchestra, under veteran Steuart Bedford, was pre-recorded at the Snape Maltings and sounds just fine.
The picture is widescreen film ratio (2.35:1) and very high quality. The sound is clear and spacious (the surround track, on Blu-ray, being decidely better than the stereo track) but it doesn’t sound at all like an opera house acoustic. Again, this is, in many ways, much more a film than a record of a live event. There are twenty minutes of intro and interviews as a bonus on the disk. They aren’t especially enlightening. The booklet contains a track listing, a note by Britten on the original production and a short piece on making the film by director Margaret Williams. Subtitle options are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish.
So, what’s the verdict? This is a fascinating and atmospheric film with a very fine performance by Alan Oke. As opera though it’s neither as well sung nor as theatrically effective as the Zürich recording and certainly can’t match the Met version for sheer musicality.
On a personal note, I know this coast. I spent plenty of time there as a boy and watching this film I can feel the wind off the North Sea. In terms of capturing the spirit of the place it is really is extraordinary.