Teatro Real de Madrid 2020-21 Review: Peter Grimes

Allan Clayton & Maria Bengtsson Remind Us That Britten Was a Fantastic Vocal Composer

By Mauricio Villa

To call the Teatro Real de Madrid’s “Peter Grimes” production anything but an artistic miracle would be a disservice to what has been accomplished by the production team, cast, and conductor, all of whom performed at the highest level.

The production undeniably drew great controversy during its production stages, with reports of a COVID outbreak delaying the production confirmed by some authorities while repeatedly denied by the Teatro Real. We shall likely never get the full story on the events that transpired or what conditions led to the conflicting views on the situation. But whatever may have happened, the company seemed to be able to move beyond it to create one of its finest productions in years.

Britten wrote perfectly for the voice (the fact that his life partner was tenor Peter Pears likely has something to do with this) with the orchestration never too dense or loud when soloists were singing. As a result, singers were better able can focus on details and their interpretation.

Superb Central Force

English tenor Allan Clayton portrayed the tormented title role superbly. He has a lyrical voice with a leggero timbre, clarity of sound, ease in the higher register, and a modest volume. He is actually closer vocally to the tenor for whom the role was created, Peter Pears, than to the dramatic and heldentenors who usually sing the part these days. Instead of leaning into darker sounds and volume, he provided a nuanced interpretation of the role.

Clayton and Bengtsson melted perfectly in their a cappella duet during the prologue, a passage during which they are greatly exposed. Mostly singing long piano legato lines together, they showed effortless vocalism filled with emotion. Clayton shined during the exchange with Captain Balstrode at the end of Scene One, again singing in an uncomfortable zone—constantly between high F and A natural—all while managing all the dynamics in the score, and filling his voice with fear and mystery.

He sang dramatically his Act Two, Scene Two, entrance, reaching the high B natural easily and descending chromatically to a low C on the opening line: “Go there.” In this moment he demonstrated that with different vocal colors and a straighter tone, he could portray the neurosis of the character without a loud dramatic voice. His voice took the lyricism and sweetness to the extreme in the fragment “I’ve seen in stars the life we might share” by producing a light easy sound up to B natural. But he drastically changed to the vision of the dead boy, with emphasis on the spoken lines, and using his effortless upper range to hold a high G for several bars it sounded easy and free.

The highlight of Clayton’s performance was his mad scene during the second scene of Act Three. Singing while seated against a wall with his eyesight lost and completely abandoned, he used all of his expressive resources to recreate a hallucinatory portrait of Grimes, who is completely exposed as he sings most of the scene a cappella. He was just as brilliant in his last scene.

In the role of Ellen, soprano Maria Bengtsson, a lyrical soprano with modern volume and perfect projection, artificially darkened her voice, thus blurring her diction in her middle register. But her crystalline bright high zone showed that she is closer to a leggera soprano than a lyrical one. Nevertheless, she was excellent in her long scene which opens the second act, showing off a facility in the lower register, particularly on “like oceans deep” where she went down to low A sharp that exuded horror and doubt; there was no need for a massive chest voice or emphatic volume, as if often the case when this role is cast with a spinto or dramatic voice. Once again, her interpretation was a reminder that Britten knows how to write for the voice. In this particular section the orchestra is barely heard and pianissimi. She provided a precise accent on the long crescendo high B flat on: “hush!” with a sparkling light high voice.

Christopher Purves as Captain Balstrode, Catherine Wyn-Rodgers as Auntie, John Graham-Hall as Bob Boles, Clive Bayley as Swallow, Rosie Aldridge as Mrs. Sedley, James Gilchrist as Reverend Horace Adams, Jacques Imbrailo as Ned Keen, Barnaby Rea as Hobson, and Rocio Perez and Natalia Labourdette as the nieces, were all superb in their supporting roles. A special mention must be made for the child Saúl Esgeva who was believable as Grimes’s terrified second assistant. Also worthy of note is aerial dancer Juan Leiba and his magnificent performance as the floating and falling bodies.

Isolation & Suffocation

Deborah Warner opted for a powerful strong atmosphere of isolation, poverty, and suffocation. Despite minimalist sets, Warner employed lots of mise-en-scène elements such as ropes, nests, and boxes to add to the psychological examination of the characters. In some ways, those elements were just as vital to telling the story as the characters on stage.

The opera begins with a boat hanging in the air, leaning to an impossible degree. Grimes rolls and creeps on the stage, and then black figures with torches illuminate him as he is put on trial. A talented actor hanging from cables performs with turns and stylish movements while the dead body of the child is carried away by the sea. The opera ends with the same actor performing in slow motion as the second child falls from the cliff, his body also pushed and pulled by the waves of the ocean.

All six interludes—and the prologue—are played with a black curtain dropped in order to facilitate scene changes. While with some operas this might come off as merely a technical necessity, here it also allowed for greater immersion into Britten’s glorious score.

The stage drastically changed in every scene, with the first scene of Act Two featuring an remarkably inclined stage that is broken into pieces: the result of the storm from the end of the first act. Every image, every scene, is a powerful depiction of the rotten, discriminative society and the perturbed mind of the protagonist. Warner opted for hyper-realistic directing of the singers, thus creating moments of deep emotion and violence.

British conductor Ivor Bolton took no risks and opted for moderate tempi, controlling the outbursts of sound with textural shifts rather than loud effects. He scrutinized all the different sonorous layers of this complex score, maintaining the tension subtly. The orchestra was very-much in synch with its leader, who at times appeared to be dancing gently with Britten’s music. As the Principal Artistic Musical Manager of the Teatro Real, Bolton is an expert in Baroque and classical repertoire, but he was quite comfortable with this 20th century score, delivering an immaculate performance. The Chorus of Teatro Real, which has a major role in this work, was equally heavenly.

So yes; this was an artistic miracle. Headed by two fantastic lead performances that eschewed interpretational cliches of the past, it felt like I was listening to this opera for the first time, presented in a fresh and exciting new light.


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