Tuesday 24 June 2014

Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera

Georgia Jarman - Peter Grimes - picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Georgia Jarman
picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Britten Peter Grimes; Carl Tanner, Georgia Jarman, Stephen Gadd, Stephen Barlow, Charles Edwards; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 21 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Imaginative and intriguingly tradition new staging of Britten's opera

Jeremy Sams highly traditional staging of Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera, with Carl Tanner as Grimes, Georgia Jarman as Ellen Orford, Stephen Gadd as Bulstrode, plus Anne-Marie Owens, Soraya Mafi, Rosie Bell, Andrew Rees, Clive Bayley, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Nigel Robson, Gary Griffiths and Matthew Stiff. Stephen Barlow conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Directed by Jeremy Sams, designed by Francis O'Connor, video design by Andrzej Goulding.

There has been a tendency in recent UK productions of Britten's Peter Grimes move away from naturalism to varieties of expressionism including David Alden's production for ENO with the denizens of the borough as George Grosz grotesques. This has gone hand in hand with a presentation of the title role as a misunderstood visionary, a misfit whose violence is only ever accidental.

Jeremy Sams new production of Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera (seen 21 June) went against both of these trends. The setting and style were naturalistic; with a setting correct to the period though with a production style which encompassed video. And in Carl Tanner's remarkable portrayal, Grimes was an inhibited, tightly-wound up man, uncommunicative beyond taciturnity and with a held-in violence underneath that always seemed to threaten (even in the pub scene with 'the Great Bear'). And we saw him being explicitly violent to his apprentice (Carter Jefferies).

Having portrayed Grimes thus (a perfectly valid interpretation) Sams seems to have sought to mitigate things by portraying Grimes as abused himself as a child, this was done by having tableaux of Young Grimes (Charlie Boyd), Young Ellen (Phoebe Venturi) and Young Grimes's Master (Steven East), during the Sea Interludes. This was a mistake and whether it was my dislike of the visuals or the stage action inhibiting conductor Stephen Barlow, I don't know, but musically the Sea Interludes seemed to lack urgency. And certainly adding action to them took away from the music's imaginative and suggestive power.

Jeremy Sams did seem to feel the need to illustrate and explain in the production, rather than rely on the audience's ability to infer. And it seemed as if he had given every single chorus member a back story, so that chorus scenes were highly busy, almost too much so (I did rather get fed up of the village idiot character). There were moments too, when his ensembles veered dangerously close to big production numbers from a musical.

But there was much that was right. Francis O'Connor's designs of flexible dark lowring wooden structures, for the borough, which moved between scenes and gave constant glimpses of the sea beyond (video designed by Andrzej Goulding). The result was very effective and, at times, magical. The inn scene was brilliantly claustrophobic (the rear set came right forward), giving the ensemble great power and intensity.

Sams feel for the personen-regie was strong, so that individual scenes worked well. Georgia Jarman, from her very first entry, had Ellen Orford's body language just right. Carl Tanner used his bulk highly effectively, sometimes, threatening and sometimes the opposite. And Stephen Gadd's Bulstrode as initially bluff to the point of rudeness, which I think is just right for the character. Moments like the quartet for the four women (Jarman, Anne Marie-Owens's Auntie, Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell as the nieces) in act three were beautifully and simply staged, showing Sams knew when to leave well alone.

Carter Jefferies, Georgia Jarman, Carl Tanner - Peter Grimes - picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Carter Jefferies, Georgia Jarman, Carl Tanner
picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Carl Tanner is a dramatic tenor, one of a number who have adopted Grimes in the wake of Jon Vickers assumption of the role 40 years ago. Whereas Stuart Skelton (at ENO) sang Grimes very much in the vein of Vickers, Tanner used his grainy, gravelly tenor to different effect. His 'Great Bear' was rougher, more awkward. His whole persona was rough and difficult, matched expressively by his singing. Here was a man that almost could not communicate and his interactions with Jarman's Ellen Orford were clumsy and rough, doomed to failure from the start. The mad-scene was mesmerising with Tanner down-stage centre virtually talking directly to us.

By contrast Georgia Jarman is a lyric soprano. Though the role of Ellen Orford was written for a dramatic soprano (Joan Cross), it has been adopted by lyric sopranos. Jarman was highly expressive and in the quieter moments such as the embroidery aria and the scene in act two with the apprentice, her control and expressiveness told. But she created a rather passive understated performance and I felt that her soprano could have done with more steel underlying it.

Stephen Gadd - Peter Grimes - picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Stephen Gadd - picture credit GPO/Robert Workman
Stephen Gadd, looking almost unrecognisable in his grizzled beard, was a bristly and difficult Bulstrode, not immediately sympathetic with the character going on a journey much as the others. His final scene on the beach, with Jarman and Tanner, was profoundly moving; more so because of the awkward roughness of language in which it was couched, with Tanner's Grimes nearly catatonic. These were characters who would never communicate easily.

The rest of the Borough was equally impressive and characterful. Rebecca de Pont Davies (who played the cross-dressing Auntie at ENO) was an upright but clearly laudanum-addled Mrs Sedley, rendering her contributions vividly. Anne Marie Owens was a highly painted Auntie, clearly an older version of her bedizzened and be-painted nieces (Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell). Owens made Auntie more awkward and less comfortable than some, just as much an outsider as Grimes. Andrew Rees was a lively and outspoken Bob Boles, Clive Bayley was highly characterful in the relatively small role of Swallow, with Nigel Robson as an ineffectual Rev. Horace Adams. Ned Keene was all surface charm, and deeper darkness, in the person of Gary Griffiths, whilst Matthew Stiff was scarily upright (and uptight) as Hobson.

The chorus, chorus master Maite Aguirre, were on fine form. Some of the early chorus scenes looked dramatically stilted but then the dramaturgy seemed to settle down, and in the more collective threatening moments the chorus were really thrilling.

In the pit was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, responding well to Stephen Barlow's relaxed but well judged account of the score. The visceral moments were indeed powerful in this relatively small theatre, but there was also some very fine and sympathetic playing in the quieter moments.

Ultimately this was quite an intense and very moving account of Peter Grimes with a towering performance from Carl Tanner in the title role, though Sams decision to stage the Sea Interludes robbed the production of its ultimate edge.
[Update: Apologies, in the first version of the article I managed to get the orchestra wrong, it was of course the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra]

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