The starting point for any production of Peter Grimes lies in the interpretation of the opera’s central character, namely Peter Grimes himself: to what extent should the audience be encouraged to view the anti-hero as an outsider, a victim of the underlying, but all-pervading intolerance and hypocrisy which saturates the Borough, rather than simply as a sadistic sociopath? Clearly, any production of note will include elements of both, but deciding on the right balance can be a difficult and, sometimes, a controversial decision, especially in cases where the director may struggle to elicit the necessary interpretation from the singer, or where the director and the singer have a different understanding of the role.
However, in this new production at the Bonn Opera, this was not to be a problem, as José Cura plays the role of Grimes, the director, scenographer, and costume designer. In fact, Cura has professed a longstanding wish to undertake this role, referring to it as the final ‘card’ in his dream ‘poker hand’ of Otello, Samson, Tannhäuser, and Grimes. He has, therefore, been handed the perfect opportunity to realize his ambition, an opportunity to create a very personal interpretation.
Shifting the Blame
Josè Cura opted to emphasize Grimes’ guilt in the drama while underplaying the role of the Borough. During the Prologue, Grimes’ first dead apprentice is beckoned by a line of child spirits to join them. In the final act, Grimes, in his delusional state, is tormented, not by two, but by three images of dead children. Thus, Cura hints at Grimes having more than two possible child deaths on his hands, and thus, moves beyond what Britten and Slater (the librettist) had written – which, in itself, does not necessarily go against their intentions. The idea of portraying Grimes as a serial child murderer is, of course, a valid starting point, although it requires careful handling. Cura chose to further accentuate this idea by not allowing the audience to be privy to the death of the second apprentice. We only see them scampering down the cliff, followed by Grimes holding the dead apprentice in his arms. Yet, Britten is very specific about this point; the child slips, Grimes does not touch him, Grimes is not directly responsible. In this production, the audience is left without this crucial piece of information and is encouraged to put the blame squarely upon Grimes’ head. In order for Cura’s reading of the drama to work he was, therefore, forced to downplay the role of the village populace in this sad affair, and in doing so the crowd/mob was relatively passive, and not particularly physically intimidating, at least not until they learn of the death of the second child, when their anger and disgust is brought thrillingly alive. In these moments, they moved menacingly towards the front of the stage, singing the chorus, ‘Peter Grimes, Peter Grimes’, with weapons in hand.
On a scene by scene basis, Cura directed the proceedings with a great deal of assurance and success and brought a great deal of energy to the drama. Of particular note was his masterful handling of Act 1, scene 2, situated in The Boar. This particularly busy scene with a lot of fast moving activity, and yet one in which all the characters were given the necessary space to express themselves. No incidents were lost amongst the hubbub. Grimes’ sudden entrance was suitably highlighted, bringing everything to an abrupt halt. One interesting decision taken by Cura, given that he created a traditional production, was to portray Mrs. Sedley as a semi-comic character. In the first scene of Act 3, he had her dressed à la Sherlock Holmes, sniffing out the whereabouts of the missing apprentice. Although it is not unknown to play Mrs. Sedley in this way, it is a risky decision. It worked well and confirmed Cura’s instinctive understanding of theater.
As scenographer and costume designer Cura produced a traditional and, in parts, an imaginative set with Victorian/Edwardian costumes, in which dark colors predominated. This palette aided the creation of the heavy atmosphere that overlays the work. In the center of the stage was The Boar public house, which doubled as the church, situated next to a tall structure that doubled as a lighthouse and as Grimes’ house. A rotating stage allowed the scenes to change rapidly, moving us from outside to inside the structures. The floor of the stage was a shale beach, with winching equipment to haul the boats in from the sea. As Grimes’ story unfolds, the set falls into decay, shadowing his mental decay, so that by the time of his suicide, The Boar/church is just a hollow frame. The overall effect was visually very pleasing and allowed a number of evocative and memorable mise en scène, such as in the final act. At this moment Grimes is seen pulling his boat up onto the beach, with the mist blowing in from the sea, the stage rotating slowly so that Grimes really appears to be struggling under its weight.
That said, the prologue did feel like it belonged in a different production as it featured a white curtain upon which the shadows of the participants in the courtroom drama were projected. All the while, Grimes stood in front of it over the dead apprentice. The entire staging of this segment, especially when compared to subsequent scenes, came off as bland and totally at odds with the rest of the production.
The first thing to note about Cura’s performance was that he looked the part. He was dressed as a typical looking fisherman, physically strong, well-built, slightly weatherbeaten and sporting the requisite seafarer’s beard. His acting was secure and expressive, and his strong presence allowed him to dominate the stage – not always with positive results, however. Musically, Cura produced some magical moments, the most compelling being Grimes’ Act 3, scene 2 mad scene, accompanied by an off-stage chorus. Distance fog horns introduce the scene and Grimes, slowly descending into a state of delirium, recalls past events. Cura’s vocal control was as near perfect as it was expressive. His mood swinging wildly and singing in snatches, Cura moderated the tone, coloring, and dynamics of his voice, successfully capturing Grimes’ mental agonies. It was a truly energetic and convincing reading of the part. A further example of Cura’s qualities, although a little more uneven in quality, was Grimes’ monologue ‘Go there!’ followed on by an extended arioso ‘I’ll tear the collar of your neck’ in which he addresses his apprentice and himself, reflecting upon his recent troubles and hopes, whilst also berating the boy. At times threatening, at times contemplative, Cura produced another versatile and expressive reading, his voice characterizing the ebb and flow of his unstable mental state.
However, this was far from a faultless performance. Two faults dogged his performance throughout the evening. Firstly, Cura’s English pronunciation was far from exemplary, a fault accentuated by the clear English from the rest of the cast. Line after line was simply unintelligible and it really did detract from his performance, only partially mitigated by the quality of his expressive and versatile voice.
Secondly, and in some ways more serious, and notwithstanding his marvelous singing in the final act, his performance was unbalanced. Whereas Cura expressed Grimes’ agitated, unstable and sadistic personality with great force and vitality, he completely failed to project Grimes’ visionary character. Thus we were presented with a somewhat lopsided portrayal. This was most obvious in his arias ‘The Great Bear and the Pleiades’ and ‘What harbour shelters peace.” Both were delivered without any real depth of feeling, a failing for which the orchestra must also share some of the responsibility, as there existed a distinct disconnect, in some passages, between the pit and the stage and an imbalance within the orchestra itself, compromising the dreamlike sound. The result was that the audience was deprived of an insight into the more human side of Grimes’ character.
The Great Surprise
Obviously, Peter Grimes is a work with more than one character, and Cura was supported in his endeavors by a fine cast. As Ellen Orford, the South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum, who was making her role debut in this production, put in a truly splendid performance and was the surprise of the evening. Her portrayal, always measured and controlled, grew over the course of the opera. The relationship she developed with Grimes was highly nuanced and captured the frustration that underlies her feelings for him. She possesses a bright strong soprano, secure across the range, although a slight harshness at the top end was evident on occasions. Her voice blended well with Josè Cura’s Grimes and was always the tenor’s equal. At times, they blended beautifully in harmony, as in their duet during the Prologue, when they contemplate their friendship, and at other times they were quite discordant, as in their Act 2 duet, when Grimes’ rage boils over, as his own inner frustrations take control, and strikes her. Their voices complemented and contrasted perfectly, and brought real depth to their relationship. Her interaction with the other characters was also well-balanced and finely sung. One such instance was the closing quartet that ends the first scene of Act 2 in which the Nieces, Auntie and Ellen produced a wonderfully controlled and lyrical sound. However, the high point was her ‘embroidery’ aria, which she delivered with great beauty, coloring the voice with subtle shades to highlight the poignancy of her broken dreams.
Strong Support Overall
Balstrode, the worldly wise ex-sea captain whose horizons extend beyond the narrow confines of the Borough, was played by Mark Morouse. Respected for his sound advice, Balstrode should be able to dominate the stage, and so he did, that is, except in his exchanges with Grimes, in which Cura tended to outshine and dominate. Morouse possesses a voice with suitable gravity and authority but sounded a bit thin in his upper range.
Auntie, played by Ceri Williams, kept a tidy and well run public house and managed the customers like a real professional. Vocally secure, although occasionally her projection lacked strength, Williams sang the part convincingly.
Auntie was supported in The Boar by her two Nieces, played by Marie Heeschen and Rosemarie Weissgerber. Both possessed light bright sopranos and flitted provocatively amongst the guests. They also displayed good technique and harmonized well together and with other members of the cast in the ensemble parts.
The Romanian, Leonard Bernad as Swallow, moved easily and convincingly between the courtroom and The Boar, displaying a complete indifference to his blatant hypocrisy and to the moral conflicts of his behavior. His bluff bass was strong and carried authority. During the Prologue his dislike of Grimes was palpable, his staccato interjections impatiently drowning out Grimes while taking the oath. The questioning that followed allowed Bernad to display his skillful handling of recitatives, which were expressive, yet always controlled. And in the Act 3 pursuit of the First Niece, his singing blended well with the Nieces, producing lively and expressive exchanges.
Of the minor roles, Fabio Lesuisse as Ned Keene deserves special credit. He produced a real energetic performance and made a convincing spiv, simultaneously charming and unscrupulous with a shining baritone voice, who danced his way through the drama, never allowing a chance to make a fast buck go amiss. The role of Ned lay comfortably within Lesuisse’s range and he took advantage of this, singing with confidence and freedom. His leading of the singalong, ‘Old Joe’s gone fishing and’, at The Boar was delivered with brio and panache.
Ankara I. Bartz, as Mrs. Sedley, was played as a semi-comic figure, which did not detract from the vicious nature of her tongue. Bartz’s mezzo-soprano was a suitable fit for the role, and she performed her Act 3 arietta ‘Crime, which my hobby is’ well, neatly matching it to her semi-comic role.
The hypocritical Bob Boles, played by Christian Georg also put in a creditable performance, coming across as thoroughly dislikable and suitably mean spirited. His diction was clear and his singing impassioned as, for example when he rallies the mob to seek out Grimes in his house.
Contrast Not Always Apparent From the Pit
The Beethoven Orchester Bonn, under the baton of Jacques Lacombe, produced an energetic, spiky reading of the score, which added to the onstage tensions and highlighted Grimes’ mental instability. Act 1, scene 2 set in The Boar was particularly successful. The music beautifully created the raging storm outside the inn as well as the brewing tensions that were developing inside and crowned it with a brilliant accompaniment to Grimes’ unwelcome entrance. However, in line with Cura’s own interpretation of Grimes, the more dreamy aspects of the score were not adequately explored and failed to produce any sense of contemplation, misguided hope or reflection, and consequently lacked the necessary contrast. Moreover, “Peter Grimes” relies on the orchestra to create a claustrophobic atmosphere which hangs heavily over the Borough, and unfortunately, this was entirely missing. This was most clearly illustrated by the first of the musical interludes (Dawn), which was taken at a brisk pace and lacked musical languor and the corresponding sense of foreboding.
The chorus was well-drilled by Marco Medved and produced a lively, powerful performance. The singing was always expressive and compensated, to some extent, for their fairly static movement, which was hampered at times by the buildings situated in the center of the stage. In particular, the menace that Medved/Lascombe managed to generate from their singing was at times almost frightening.
Bonn’s Peter Grimes can not, therefore, be classed as a runaway success, yet it nevertheless did engage the audience throughout the evening. It was certainly very pleasing to the eye and, although musically somewhat inconsistent, it generated an emotionally charged atmosphere and elicited some good singing and fine acting from a solid cast.