When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.
For review purposes I watched this on the commercial VHS that was available in the early 1990s. The picture will obviously be better on the DVDs though I don’t suppose it will be a whole lot better than average TV, at least on the Kultur release. The stereo sound on the tape is pretty good and unless some fancy enhancing has happened (most unlikely with Kultur) one gets OK 1980s stereo but nothing fancy.
Elijah Moshinsky’s production is dark. Dark as in low light levels as opposed to extra pessimistic. If I hadn’t seen this in the theatre I’d think it was a function of it being an old VHS recording but I clearly remember how hard it was to see much on stage even from the Orchestra Stalls. The palette is greys, blacks and browns with only the nieces permitted a splash of muted colour. It’s also period and naturalistic which works pretty well. At least we are clearly in a fishing village by the sea. In my opinion the sea matters in Peter Grimes. The music tells us that but it’s more than that. Anyone who knows the east coast generally, and Suffolk in particular, knows how land and sea and light shape everything. Don’t believe me? Go look at a Turner. When the sea vanishes from the drama it loses a certain sense of menace (one of the main weaknesses of the recent Met production). Where Moshinsky maybe misses a trick is in not making more of the orchestral interludes. It’s only in the first and last that anything happens on stage (another problem with the Met production). Moshinsky also doesn’t pull any punches in his take on the nieces. No ambiguity here. They are prostitutes. All in all, for its era, the production holds up pretty well.
Musically there’s a lot to like too. For me, the highlight is Heather Harper’s Ellen Orford. She has a gorgeous voice and acts extremely well. “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury in idleness” is poignant almost beyond belief. Forbes Robinsom makes more of Swallow than most of his rivals and most of the other minor roles are fine. Colin Davis gets some really intense playing out of the orchestra. His tempi are quite extreme. In places he’s really quick but, especially when Grimes is singing, he slows right down. I timed the short third act at eight minutes slower than Runnicles. All in all though it’s a very good piece of conducting. I have reservations about Norman Bailey’s Balstrode. Maybe the voice is too dark for the music. I’m not sure but he doesn’t dominate the stage like some of his rivals. Frankly he’s best in the spoken dialogue in Act 3 Scene 2.
Then there’s Vickers. The conventional wisdom is that Vickers gives us “brutal Grimes” as against Pears’ more lyrical version. It’s not that simple. Vickers’ Grimes is far from one dimensional. Sure he can be brutal but he can quite gentle too. His “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home” is quite heartbreaking, the more so as it comes just a couple of minutes before all his dreams are dashed for good. He also comes across as quite mad and broken but not brutal in “Grimes! Steady. There you are. Nearly home.” When he is brutal, he’s very brutal and the contrast is reinforced by the voice. Most of Grimes more sympathetic music is cruelly high for Vickers and part of the pathos lies in his struggle to sing it at all (which he barely does with “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”) whereas Grimes at his most brutal allows Vickers to unleash a power and volume quite beyond the likes of Pears or Langridge. Vickers acting is a bit odd too. He shambles at times like a rather drunk grizzly bear and at other times he strikes almost baroque poses. That aspect of his interpretation doesn’t really convince me. Still, I doubt there’s a definitive take on Grimes. It’s too great and too complex for that. I think Vickers’ take is valid and well worth watching as well as being a landmark in the development of the role.
The video/broadcast was directed by John Vernon. Considering this is television in 1981 I’m not complaining too much. It’s mostly shot in closeup but he does give us setting shots, especially when it really matters like the start of Act 3 Scene 2. The VHS doesn’t have subtitles which is a bit of a drag (though this may have been fixed on the DVD releases).
This is an important landmark in the history of productions of Peter Grimes and this recording is a useful record of that.
Here’s the Youtube version of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”. Note the abrupt change of volume and mood as soon as the really high passage is over.