Brno National Theater 2023-24 Review: Peter Grimes

Radok Presents A Clear, Dramatically Strong, Unambiguous Reading

By Alan Neilson
(Photo Brno: Marek Olbryzmek)

Britten’s “Peter Grimes” is a director’s dream.

Who is Grimes? It is certain he is a loner; an outsider and a social misfit open to fits of temper. Yet there is also a sensitive side to his nature that comes out intermittently throughout the opera, notably in his aria “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades” and in the reflective passage, “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home.” Undoubtedly, he is a deeply layered and ambiguous figure, but is he capable of murder, sadism or worse? And what of the other characters in the story, particularly the people of the Borough, who come together as a crowd with a single intent: do they have any responsibility for the boy’s death and for accentuating Grimes’ dysfunctional behavior?

The options open to the director, which fall between the two extremes of Grimes the victim and Grimes the murderer, are manyfold, and over the years they have offered up many different and interesting interpretations.

Grimes Versus the Crowd

The director, David Radok, took a largely unambiguous approach. For him, Grimes is a victim who is unable to deal successfully with the pressures of the Borough’s intolerant, inward-looking and small-minded populace. When his apprentice, John, falls to his death in Act two, Radok makes it very clear that Grimes is innocent of his death and shines the light of blame directly onto the mob. Startled by the noise of the crowd approaching his house, he turns and lets go of the rope holding John as he climbs down the cliff, who falls to his death. Of course, he does not portray Grimes as wholly innocent; his violence, his inability to control his temper and his disinterest which verged on contempt for the community, were all clearly on view. By comparison with many other productions, however, he was a far more sympathetic character. And why not? Britten’s sympathies with Grimes are clearly evident in the music.

The tenor Joachim Bäckström produced a first-rate performance in the role and successfully captured Grimes’ sensitivities. He often came across as noble and reflective, which made his violent and coarse outbursts appear disjointed and wild, although never gratuitous. Rather, they were born of his frustrations, resulting from his inability to connect with and understand the wider community, and crowds do not take kindly to such people!

At least, the audience had little problem sympathizing with Bäckström’s Grimes, which made his assault on Ellen all the more shocking and dramatically pungent. Moreover, it was very difficult to believe that he had murdered any of the boys. The impression was reinforced by the beautiful and tender expressivity that Bäckström was able to imbue the vocal line, in which his own suffering, frustrations and sense of non-understanding were clearly wrought. His singing of “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades” was sung in complete isolation in the pub, full of people. While the perplexed crowd looked on without any comprehension whatsoever of what Grimes was saying, he gave voice to his thoughts, totally unaware of their presence. It was a fine moment that showed off his sensitively crafted phrasing and pleasing timbre to good effect.

Radok’s treatment of the crowd, however, was unsympathetic. Clearly identifying it as the source of the problem, he took every opportunity to portray their intolerance, and the pressures they exert, on all around them to conform to their prejudices, values and views. He used their physical presence to menace people, and it was not just Grimes who fell victim; anyone who stepped outside the prescribed limits would be targeted. The well-meaning Ellen Orford was subjected to its rough treatment as they surrounded and closed in on her space, intimidating her for not sharing its view of Grimes. Mrs. Sedley was mocked by the crowd, not because of her vicious tongue or hypocrisy, but because she thought the pub and its customers were below her. There was no ambiguity in its part in the drama; if it were not for the crowd, John would not have fallen to his death.

His interpretation was supported by the chorus-master, Pavel Koñárek, who led the Janáčkovy Opera Chorus in a brilliantly sung performance that highlighted both its sentimental nature and its vicious intent, particularly in the Act three chorus “Who holds himself apart,” where they faced the audience and cried out “Peter Grimes” again and again with increasing ferocity.

Grimes’ Clearly Defined Relationships

Likewise, Radok’s portrayal and development of the other characters and their relationships, especially between Grimes and Ellen and Grimes and Balstrode, were expertly crafted to carry the narrative in a clear and dramatically strong manner that highlighted his interpretation.

Does Grimes love Ellen, or does he see her simply as a means of salvation? There was little on Grimes’ part to suggest any real love, but Jana Šrejma Kačírková’s Ellen was clearly committed to him. She stood up for him against the crowd; she suffered when she realized that Grimes was beating John; and her cry of pain when she understood that Balstrode was asking Grimes to take his own life was spine-chilling. It was an exceptionally strong performance that captured the roller coaster of her emotions. Moreover, her voice was perfect for the role. Her singing was secure, agile and expressive, topped by a beautiful, silvery upper register that positively shone. Even in the most dramatically intense moments, she sang without any sense of vocal anxiety. Her aria “Glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight,” sung against a choral background of parishioners in the church, not only showed off the tonal beauty of her voice and her delightful phrasing, but also its wonderful dexterity. Her confrontation with Grimes, which immediately followed, confirmed the quality of her expression as she articulated her concerns and inner conflict, in which her voice rang out, drenched with emotional strength.

Baritone Svatopluk Sem was an unsentimental, practical Balstrode who dealt fairly with Grimes, but who was more interested in bringing stability to the Borough. His singing was resonant, secure and forthright, successfully conveying the impression of a person of good standing within the community. His exchanges with Grimes were direct and explicit, clearly displaying that he felt no personal animosity towards him, but neither did he shirk from saying what he believed to be necessary.

The Borough’s gossip, Mrs. Sedley, was essayed by contralto Jitka Sapara Fischerová, who provided a compelling characterization that drew heavily upon the stereotype. She was a real busy body, always around, listening to and judging; nothing escaped her prying eyes. She sang with a great deal of versatility as she moved her voice effortlessly in order to capture a range of negative traits; sometimes she sounded haughty and hypocritical, at other times she coated the voice with a vicious curl, yet she always sounded judgmental.

The role of Auntie is based firmly on the traditional image of the pub landlady. She has to be cheerful, strong-willed and able to roll with the banter of the customers. It really needs to be played as a stereotype to work effectively. Unfortunately, mezzo-soprano Jana Hrochová did not quite capture the stereotype, and the character fell a little flat. She was not helped by her poor pronunciation of English. Musically, she sounded strong.

Baritone Jiří Hájek gave a nuanced performance as the apothecary Ned Keene, which allowed the character to move beyond the stereotypically loud-mouthed showoff by highlighting his intelligence and fundamental decency. His singing was secure and resonant, and his English intonation was excellent.

Bass Jan Štáva made an excellent impression in the role of Swallow. Possessing the necessary gravitas for the role, he sang with the necessary confidence and certainty for his position as a lawyer and as a man of authority. His voice has a pleasing, rounded quality, which he used expressively to bring the character to life.

The two nieces were played by sopranos Andrea Široká and Tereza Kyzlinková. As is normally the case, they acted out their part as a pair, both supporting and sparking off each other. They were frivolous and provocative, flirtatious and coquettish. Both gave solid singing performances.

Bob Boles is the typical religious hypocrite. All is correct on the surface, but after a few drinks, he is aggressive, lecherous and opinionated. Tenor Vít Nosek gave a convincing, animated performance, playing up all his character’s negative traits. He was a splendid drunk.

Bass David Nykl produced a strong, secure and confident reading of Hobson, while tenor Petr Levíček convinced as the weak-willed and ineffectual Reverend Horace Adams.

Yet what were we to make of the boy, John? He was certainly afraid of Grimes and did not want to be in his presence. Grimes did beat him; that much is certain. But was it possible to read more into this than just the reactions of a fragile child who finds himself in strange surroundings without anyone to turn to? This was a question that was left hanging and was probably the most ambivalent part of Radok’s interpretation.

A Strongly Designed Staging

Radok, who was also responsible for the scenery, created a set that was dominated by the sea. Across the back of the stage was a seascape, which changed in accordance with the lighting, sensitively designed by Přemysl Janda. As the tensions of the Borough rose and the mists blew in, the set darkened, and the sea became more menacing. It was a marvelous idea that acted on a number of levels: it successfully created the necessary claustrophobic atmosphere and reflected the depth and changing passions of Grimes, but it was also aesthetically pleasing in itself. A rail ran in front of the sea to create a promenade where the citizens of the Borough congregated, creating a sense of shared experience penned in by the sea.

The pub scene in Act one was carefully constructed so that as the storm raged, the people of the Borough, who have been forced to seek refuge inside, are constantly battling to keep the doors and windows closed and into ever closer contact with each other, allowing their shifting emotions to connect to the rising and falling of the storm.

Zuzana Ježková‘s costumes were taken from the mid-20th century and neatly designed to reflect the characters’ roles and personalities. They sat sympathetically against Radok’s scenery and helped create a visually strong presentation that supported the connection between the narrative and psychology of Grimes and the crowd.

The conductor Marko Ivanović took a similar interpretation to that which he employed for Brno National Theatre’s production of “Salome,” in which he focused on promoting the dramatic nature of the work. He elicited strong dynamic contrasts from the Orchestra Janáčkovy Opera and sensitively managed the tensions over the course of the scenes to meet the needs of the onstage drama. It was a musically exciting reading with a strong forward momentum. And the second sea interlude was absolutely superb; it was certainly the best reading that I have heard. On the negative side, however, the textures were not always well-balanced. Individual sections would occasionally stand out in rude fashion and compromise the atmospheric effect. There was also a tendency to cut short the line in slower passages when it could have been extended to give the sound a deeper, fuller body.

Overall, this was an impressive production. The singing was excellent, the orchestral sound was dramatically strong and Radok’s reading was clearly focused to bring out the strength of the narrative, albeit one that downplayed many of the ambiguities that lie within the work, particularly in the case of Grimes himself, who was presented as the victim of the mob. It was, nevertheless, a captivating presentation, one that kept the audience engrossed throughout the evening.


ReviewsStage Reviews