It seems to be becoming traditional for me to begin every blog post with 1. an exclamation about how long it's been since my last and 2. some creative excuses for my absence – to the point where I should probably stop exclaiming and just accept that I'm no longer the once-a-week blogger I used to be. Les neiges d'antan and all that. I can't even offer many excuses this time. I mean, sure, this last week has involved (wait, let me count) six flights, eight cities and two hemispheres – not to mention an excruciating thirty-six hours in dial up hell – but it was preceded by several weeks of lounging about in Spain and forgetting what green vegetables look like, when what I should have been doing was writing something – anything – about my favourite opera.
The fight with Butterfly would be hard-won, but yes, I'm 99.7% sure that Peter Grimes is in fact my favourite opera. Should I make it to see the Welsh National Opera's Butterfly in 2013, featuring Cheryl Barker in the title role, the ranking might swap around for a little while, but in the end, Britten always triumphs. Grimes is just too headpoundingly extraordinary to be beaten.
How convenient, then, that I have ended up travelling the world with the man who some would say (have said, in fact) is pretty much the Grimes of his generation. I know I think he is, and what's more, I've thought so since before I had such cause for bias. I lavished some of my best hyperbole ever on Stuart's Grimes for Opera Australia in 2009 – as did most of Sydney's operagoing population – and that was before I'd even met the man, much less run off with him. Not that it really matters. There was never a shortage, then or now, of people far more credible than I've ever been to declare his supremacy in the role, either in that mesmerising Opera Australia production or in the similarly triumphant ENO production which preceded it.
That ENO show is the one that's just been in Oviedo, along with half the original cast, half the cast from the Vlaamse Opera, where it's been in between, and, well, yours truly. I wrote about the sitzprobe earlier, the only rehearsal I went to until the final dress, in order to preserve the shocks and horrors of a production which more than one Londoner has told me is among the most exceptional they've seen. It was the right choice; in fact, just the jawdropping conclusion to Act II, when (SPOILER ALERT) a panicked and sobbing Grimes actually drags the bloodied corpse of his apprentice back on to the stage, was in and of itself worth all of my willpower.
Alden's production is in many ways the polar opposite of Neil Armfield's: alienating rather than humanising, cruel instead of compassionate, and just plain weird where Armfield's was agonisingly naturalistic. If I'm honest, I think the Armfield has imprinted me, ducklike. It wasn't my first Grimes, but it might as well have been: it was the first Grimes which got to me, and one of the most moving experiences (theatrical or otherwise) of my life. That's hard to beat. Impossible, in fact.
But it doesn't preclude me from seeing the brilliance of other stagings, and Alden's unquestionably has brilliance in abundance. I don't pretend to understand all its intricacies, nor do I trust myself to describe it adequately. Reviews like this one will give you the basic idea; beyond that is a web of infinite detail and deep, dark ambiguities. I noticed new things every time I saw it, and emerged with new questions. I marvelled at how closely every little bit of stage business was tied to both libretto and score. I recoiled from, then was drawn back to, every grotesque villager in turn, from the oily Ned Keene to the drug-addled Mrs Sedley to creepy, creepy (yet oh so pitiable) Nieces.
And as ever, I hoped that this would be the time that Grimes followed Balstrode's advice, married Ellen immediately and moved away from the Borough. He never does. I still keep hoping he will. I'm sure it was a combination of factors – the production as a whole, the way Stuart plays (and sings...oh how he sings) the role, the way the rest of the cast interacts with him, and the advent of my own personal connection – but I felt more sympathetic than ever to Grimes this time around. In Sydney, he was a character doomed from the outset by his own obvious inability to cope with everyday life – he was forever on the edge of rage, of anger, of despair.
In Oviedo I saw a more adult Grimes, a man still (at least to begin with) connected to reality, and who might just have been able to make it work until everything went so horribly wrong. In Alden's Borough, Peter Grimes isn't the strange one, or the villain, or the madman. Everybody else is messed up, and he's their victim. Not blameless, but undoubtedly wronged. Grimes ripped my heart out in Sydney, and in Oviedo, he ripped it out again – in a slightly different way but with no less force. And while the Opera Australia production is still the best production of any opera I've ever seen anywhere, I have to say: closing night in Oviedo was the best Grimes I've yet seen Stuart sing. For all I know it outdid the London performances too.
I haven't mentioned the rest of the cast, and I need to, because they did a wonderful job. My particular favourite may just have been Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene – such a mess of lechery and vices, and yet so hilariously played that, forgive me, I kind of liked him. (It did help that he sang it so perfectly.) Judith Howarth was all gorgeous tone and legato as Ellen, Peter Sidholm terribly dashing in his naval uniform, and Michael Colvin's bright tenorial stylings were ideal Bob Boles. Carole Wilson's fiercely blustery Mrs Sedley, and Rebecca de Pont Davies's German Expressionist Auntie was two masterpieces of mezzo menace.
Darren Jeffery's Hobson was as intimidating in stature as in voice, Matthew Best sonorous and superior as Swallow, while Phillip Sheffield made it bravely through some appallingly timed throat trouble to be the world's most obsequious Rector. And I can't forget the terrible twins – Gillian Dazeley-Ramm and Tineke Van Ingelgem as the spooky schoolgirl Nieces, their role rather larger in Alden's hands than usual, and requiring not only lovely singing (which they also provided) but also a lot of complex choreography, in whch they also excelled. I just hope I never meet them in a dark alley. Or in my nightmares.
Giant thumbs up also to the OSPA (Oviedo's opera orchestra) and conductor Corrado Rovaris, for a fantastic realisation of the Best Score Ever, to the chorus – Peter Grimes is enough of a challenge for a full-time, Anglophone chorus, let alone a part time group of Spanish speakers, and they did a very impressive job, to the supernumeraries and dancers, and last but not least, to the administation of the Opera de Oviedo, who looked after us so beautifully.
In fact, thumbs up to the city of Oviedo as a whole. Our five weeks there flew by. The wine, the food, the rugby, the public art (statues everywhere), the fur coats (I've never seen so many in one place), the architecture both very old and very new...I could go on. It was all such a joy. I hope we'll make it back soon.