Opéra National de Paris 2022-23 Review: Peter Grimes

Allan Clayton Shines in Deborah Warner’s Fascinating Production

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo : Vincent PONTET)

This review is for the Jan 29, 2023 performance. 

It seems that the last century is far enough from us that “Peter Grimes” can be performed enthusiastically as “Tosca” and “La Forza del Destino.” And this Paris Opera new production is to die for!

First things first: “Peter Grimes” is an opera that has aged better than anyone could have expected. Its themes are universal: violence, friendship, negligence, suffering, etc. Especially on abuse, the opera proves to be quite relevant today. On the one hand, Peter is indeed guilty of crimes that we see on stage: we see his negligence and violence towards his apprentices, and we are given compelling indications that Grimes is also a sexual harasser.

On the other, the population that so violently seeks to bring him to justice seems, at best, pathetic and hypocritical. Their representation is closely related to a (mis)characterization of the English working-class as inherently fascist. Although one might therefore argue for the social limitations of Britten and librettist Montagu Slatter’s work, it is evident that “Peter Grimes” stands by its artistic ambivalence; there are not easy ways around it.

Preserving ‘Peter Grimes” Ambivalence

Deborah Warner’s staging, with its great use of the acting possibilities of her cast, preserves all of the ambivalence of “Peter Grimes.” She stages the opera in a post-Brexit city on the east coast of England. Her choice accentuates the political implications of the opera, since Warner creates a stage that is both real and surreal. Michael Levine’s scenarios are a good example: the white net in the back makes an oneiric background where boats—and people—can fluctuate as memories from the past. However, the townspeople and their houses are realistically constructed.

The lights of Peter Mumford and its screen announcing the interludes induce us to remember this is theater, but Luis F. Carvalho’s wonderful costumes are as realistic as they can be: his townspeople are carefully dressed to not resemble people wearing opera costumes, and all glamour is absent. Warner’s direction made all these artistic elements work well on their own, while also purposefully serving the making of her vision.

Peter Grimes of His Generation

The singers were extremely well directed on the stage, and their acting was an integral part of their singing. I cannot resist singling out how great the acting was, but in general, this was a production without weak links.

Allan Clayton has proven himself the Peter Grimes of his generation. He is compelling as the fisherman in all ways possible. His physicality on stage was extremely well-crafted. He transitioned perfectly well between being a troglodyte and a sensitive, tormented soul, haunted by the ghost of his victims.  In the first scene, he is almost asleep while the townsman accuses him. He rolls through the stage, trapped by fishing nets while his lines are sung as if he were yawning. It was an efficient way to capture the audience’s affection from the start.

Vocally Clayton brings to Britten’s music and Slater’s text an artistic sense and realism that is rare to see. Peter Grimes is a hard role because most of its greatest interpreters recorded the role—including Peter Pears, of course. Britten’s score requires a tenor that has much command on stage and a great legato while making the text sound expressive by every means possible. Clayton’s instrument has a great range of colors. He is capable of emitting vibrato-free notes in his upper register while compromising neither his intonation nor his projection.

But at other moments he also shows much harshness. I was particularly impressed by how he managed to sing all prolonged vowels with much nuance: the words gained a sense of story of the sound within their own realm. As if one word, one syllable, were a journey onto itself. Few times have I seen such a great achievement on the stage.

Keenlyside Shines

Simon Keenlyside as Captain Balstrode has all the qualities that one would expect from him: an eye-pleasing, compelling actor, he is a great singer with much projection and artistic capacity. His voice seems in as good a shape as it always is. He manages to make the captain seem a source of sanity and carefulness even when under pressure from the whole city.

Ellen Orford was sung by the sympathetic Maria Bengstsson. Scenically she was the incorporation of all the sweetness that one would expect from a schoolteacher. She carried a small backpack for the whole opera that made one wonder if she was as naïve as her students—after all, she might be an enabler of Peter’s crimes… Her voice has a charming, tight vibrato and sounded slightly lighter than usual. She really searched to make Ellen as lyric and tender as possible. Her lower register, however, was inaudible.

Auntie was handed to the great Catherine Wyn-Rogers. She took on the role with such realism that was hard to even remember that she is one of the finest and most refined singers that I have ever seen on the stage: a very efficient case of “deglaming” as Hollywood people say. Her Auntie is extremely aged, and her voice often sounded older than actually is. Most of the night she (interestingly) emphasized the higher harmonics of her instrument, but she delivered an extremely moving “And shall we be ashamed because we confront men from ugliness?”

Rosie Aldridge sang the hard role of Mrs. Sedley. One does not want to make her as charismatic as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, but Mrs. Sedley cannot be the nosy neighbor of “Bewitched,” Gloria Kravitz—a character that, for many reasons, should stay in the past. Rosie Aldridge makes Mrs. Sedley annoying, but also compelling; she becomes a finer form of problematizing the true intentions animating any justice-seeking person, even when they are truly after a real crime, and they are efficient in their investigations. Aldridge has a powerful instrument and great projection; her mezzo tone works perfectly for Britten, and her voice has focus and the clarity in all registers that is much needed in this role: qualities not so easy to find in mezzo-sopranos.

Clive Bayley’s Swallow also was a showcase of both good singing and great acting. He is a pathetic man teased by  the nieces, but also an abuser. His confrontation with Peter Grimes in the first scene showcased his voice and capacity of speech-delivery quite well. The aunties were sung by the always efficient Anna-Sophie Neher and Ilanah Lobel-Torres. Stephen Richrdson, Jacques Imbrailo, James Gilchrist, and John Graham-Hall are good in their respective characters.

The chorus, conducted by Ching-Lien Wu, showed much control in their interventions, especially when offstage. I did struggle to understand their English though—which did not happen elsewhere in the opera. The musical phrasing, nonetheless, was so good that I wonder if the prolonged silence from the audience, after the opera had ended, was not because of the quality of the chorus’s delivery of the final scene.

The orchestra was very good under the hands of Alexander Soddy. I particularly appreciated the wind sections, though the first interlude—maybe the most famous—did show some hesitation from the strings. The orchestra was much in synchrony with the singing on the stage, something essential in an opera as speech-driven as “Peter Grimes.”

It was a great night, and one should not miss it. I am definitely going to see it again!


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