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
Blend of two traditions
Astor Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires (1968) is at the opposite end of the scale from Peter Grimes, let alone Grimes on the Beach. It calls for just two singers and 10 musicians in its original form. The version presented by the Cork Midsummer Festival at the Cork Opera House last week used just eight players. But it does have something in common with Grimes on the Beach. They both manage to reach out to audiences who might never have set foot inside an opera house.
What Piazzolla is known for, of course, is tango. He may have studied with Nadia Boulanger, an extraordinary teacher of composers. But even she seems to have divined that tango rather than his classical training was the area for Piazzolla to focus on. And in his unique blend of the two traditions, it’s undoubtedly the tango which won out.
The first production, Piazzolla wrote, brought him “great artistic success accompanied by economic disaster . . . I sold an apartment and a car to put it on stage and was left with nothing. It was a total loss. But I enjoyed myself, and that operita I wrote with Horacio Ferrer was among the most important pieces I’ve ever composed.”
Bringing the skills of his hybrid background to bear on opera was always likely to produce a work more tango-like than operatic, and when, in 1987, he createda more operatic version, it still didn’t bring him the success he wanted for the work.
As seen in Conor Hanratty’s Cork production, it’s more a cabaret opera than anything else, with the musicians (led by music director John O’Brien) performing from memory and mingling onstage with the characters, and often moving (choreography by John Heginbotham) in a kind of ritualised shuffle. The extra movement is welcome.
The story is one of self-regeneration. The words of Ferrer are dense, almost impenetrably so in the context of a full-length opera, the metaphors and allusions piling up in unmanageable proportions. Neither the impressive intonings of the striking Olwen Fouéré as El Duende (a speaking part), nor the throaty, smoky singing of the two leads (Camilla Griehsel’s María and Nuno Silva’s Payador) were sufficient to carry a work in which the fascinations of the moment did not successfully meld into a satisfying whole.
Beyond the beach
Aldeburgh, even in Britten’s centenary year, is about much more than an opera on a beach. Highlights of the other events I attended in a four-day sampling included an impeccable Bach St John Passion from the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner, with alto Meg Bragle a standout among the soloists; a searing, intense Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov; and a belated premiere of the teenage Julian Anderson’s string quartet Light Music. Written in 1984 to 1985 and declared unplayable at the time, its spectral investigations were handled with typical aplomb by the Arditti Quartet.
From next week, Michael Dervan’s
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