Blown away on the beach by Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’
Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Aldeburgh Festival and Astor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires at the Cork Midsummer Festival
The first performance of Grimes on the Beach, a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes at the Aldeburgh Festival last week. Photograph: Bethany Clarke/Getty Image
Remember Sensorama? It was an idea for a cinema of the future as a multi-sensory immersive experience, with tilting seats, smells and so on. Well, for opera, if you can’t bring the sea, spray or wind into the theatre, you can certainly take Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes to the sea, as the Aldeburgh Festival showed on Aldeburgh beach last week.
The original Sensorama was a bit like a partly enclosed version of a racing game in an arcade, a strictly one-person affair. Grimes on the Beach was presented to more than 1,500 at a time. It seems like a totally mad idea, and it was. But no madder than founding a festival in Aldeburgh in the first place, back during the postwar privations of 1948.
A live orchestra was out of the question, so Aldeburgh took a multi-layered solution. The festival opened with concert performances of the opera (recorded for issue on CD by Signum Classics), and the orchestra and chorus parts were separately recorded for use on the beach.
The chorus on the beach sang, the voices mixing in acoustically with their pre-recorded selves, but, in order to reduce the level of wind noise from microphones, they were not miked. The conductor, Steuart Bedford, worked from a dugout and the amplified live singers and pre-recorded orchestra and chorus were mixed and relayed through a multiplicity of loudspeakers.
The hazards of the operation were pretty obvious on the opening night. With a brisk wind blowing constantly, anyone who was not well wrapped up must have found it pretty unendurable – there were people in rain-gear, ski-gear and multiplicities of blankets, and it was always a challenge to stay warm. The rolling and rushing of the sea was a perpetual background that sometimes threatened to dominate the music, and once it darkened, the beams of the production lights were filled with the shifting patterns of sea-mist.
Opera in the open air is one thing; opera on an exposed shingle beach is something else again.
Director Tim Albery updated the setting to the 1940s, when the opera was written, and before a note was played the period was atmospherically set with a fly-past and some aeronautical acrobatics by a Spitfire – the opera premiered in June 1945, just months before the end of the second World War. Leslie Travers’s set, of tilted boardwalks, crooked lamps and beached boats, was wide and shallow and the directionality of the sound – everything seeming to emanate from the nearest loudspeaker – sometimes made it momentarily difficult to identify who exactly was singing. The voices themselves were very well captured by the sound system; the orchestra, sometimes boomy and hollow, sometimes just plain thin, rather less well.
Grimes on the Beach was not a production for purists, but rather more of a leap into the unknown, a kind of operatic adventure sport. The harshness of the setting crystallised the tensions of man against the elements and man against himself, Grimes’s struggle with the cruel sea and with the inflexibility of his own driven character, his inability to reach out to or be fully reached by others. Alan Oke captured the resolve and fallibility of Grimes’s situation with consistent pathos; Giselle Allen was a firm, heartfelt support as Ellen Orford; David Kempster a compassionate Balstrode, and the chorus, bringing together the choruses of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, did sterling work, whether getting horizontally-blown laundry on to a line, or engaging in low-life carousing. All in all, an unforgettable evening.