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


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.

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
column will appear on Wednesdays

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