Collected reflections on Opera Australia's extraordinary 2009 season of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, directed by Neil Armfield, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth and featuring Stuart Skelton in the title role. Full production details here; a survey of reviews and responses here.
I must confess I am actually nervous about responding to this, as this opera is one of those rare pieces of art that simply transcends words. I cannot remember how many times I have told people that it has "broken my heart" and found the expression too cliched to capture exactly what the physical aching in my chest was that remained for hours and hours after both performances I saw.
Moments that I think need to be preserved (this list might become quite long...) -
- Susan Gritton and Peter Coleman-Wright in the prologue, with concern and fear and pity in their eyes that spoke volumes about what was going to follow.
- The way the chorus stacked the chairs during the 'Dawn' interlude so quietly that the pianissimo of the opening strings was completely undisturbed.
- The way the sun and moon, in their turn, edged across the sky and shadows gradually moved as the day wore in to night; & the way I could truly smell the sea off stage in the opening scene.
- Peter Coleman-Wright finding true dramatic purpose for the break Britten wrote into the line, "I'll give a hand. The tide is near the turn."
- That rope across the very front of the stage.
- Neil Armfield's brilliant directorial vision that at the opera's opening, many of the principal characters are actually not against Grimes. The dimension with which he shaped their descent from ambivalence to violent hate. It terrified me.
- Susan Gritton's "Let Her Among You", and particularly "Mr. Hobson, where's your cart? I'm ready." as the horns underneath elevate her far higher than the Borough commentators. I knew this opera intimately before I went to see it and the sheer brilliance of Susan's (and others') performances made me hear things I never knew were there.
- The lightning strikes, and the way that the light slowly faded after the initial flash.
- Stuart Skelton and Peter Coleman-Wright in duet immediately before the storm interlude and, obviously,"What harbour shelters peace away from tidal waves, away from storms?" directed at Dr. Crabbe but as though Skelton was meeting every one of us at eye level.
- The way Dr. Crabbe became a vehicle through which Grimes could make eye-contact with 2,500 people simultaneously; as we saw things through him.
- The characterisation of the nieces, not explicitly as prostitutes, but as silly girls in a small English village.
- The entrance of John, the apprentice, soaking wet and instantly winning our hearts.
- "HOME? DO YOU CALL THAT HOME?"
- The Sunday Morning interlude. Wigglesworth brought so much out of the AOBO that I could genuinely hear the people on their way to church, and the waves softly breaking on the shore.
- "And god have mercy upon me!" and Stuart Skelton striking Susan Gritton across the face. Brilliantly executed.
- The terrifying crescendo as the beat of Hobson's drum swelled, catastrophically, in to "Now is gossip put on trial".
- The realisation that the men had gone off to play boy's games, and the women left standing alone onstage, before exiting the other way.
- "From the gutter". Heartbreaking.
- The moment where Dr. Crabbe beckoned the set forward, and opened the curtain on Grimes's hut.
- Stuart Skelton lifting the chair high in the air and swinging it, as the apprentice sitting in it screamed and gasped for air.
- The letting go of the rope, and the audible gasps of shock when it happened.
- Dr. Crabbe and Mrs. Sedley meeting one another's gaze as the curtain fell on act two; leaving us in no doubt that of all of the testosterone that drove the men to Grimes's hut in the first place, the violence of the act yet to come has a very different origin.
- The applause for Mark Wigglesworth and the AOBO. I honestly think that, had I the courage to stand at that point, the entire audience would have followed.
- The curtain rising on Dr. Crabbe, bathed in the warm afternoon sun with a beer and clouded mind.
- The way I could feel the warmth of the sun on my own skin, such was the success of this lighting design.
- The moment of French Farce, choreographed to "assign your prettiness to me!" as the young and foolish, unaware of what was going on around them, ran in and out of doors in a game of chase.
- "I'll water my roses and leave you the wine", and Horace Adam's brilliant, drunken, stumble across the stage and off.
- Being so utterly torn between watching Susan Gritton sing "Embroidery" and having my heart broken by her voice and by the expression on her face, and knowing that it would break just as easily should I venture over and watch Peter Coleman-Wright, silent and equally as expressive.
- "Embroidery in childhood was a luxury of idleness". Extraordinarily sung. And Susan Gritton, on the verge of finding disgust in what Grimes has done, collapsing in to tears.
- The moment where simple, domestic objects like chairs and tables suddenly became violent instruments during "Who holds himself apart lets his pride rise."
- The chorus running towards me, shouting "GRIMES! PETER GRIMES!" at full volume.
- Skelton's mad scene, with the principal cast watching.
- The way music was abandoned and the sheer force of violent tragedy took over when, having descend in to complete helplessness, Grimes can only sing his name, over and over again.
- Susan Gritton reaching out to Skelton in the mad scene, and slowly lowering her hand again.
- "Come on. I'll help you with the boat." and the silence before "No." I commented after the broadcast that it feels as though the entire opera takes place between those two lines, and I still think it does.
- Skelton's exit, utterly broken.
- The monochromatic final image of the Borough waking up, and a boy playing a balancing game, as the curtain slowly fell.
I'm sure more things will come to me, and hopefully even more after I read what others have to say. Before I finish, and because this seems as appropriate a forum as ever, I feel I should something that have been on my mind since seeing the opening night production, and having been reiterated at closing night. The setting of this production in 1945, in an England immediately at the end of the Second World War, made me realise how extraordinary the psychological portrait of humanity is which is painted by Britten within this opera. I find it terrifying to think that the choruses, "Now is Gossip put on trial" and "Who holds himself apart", are among the most exciting moments in the entire opera. I find it shameful how my pace quickens with the beat of Hobson's drum, and it makes me think of all of those people throughout history (and, in the context of this production, Nazi Germany) who are otherwise good but allowed themselves to be caught up in something truly evil simply because of how exciting the rhetoric (in this case, the music) was that lead them toward it. Armfield asks in his director's note, "where does our rage come from?". "Our rage".
I'll nominate a comic one: Mrs Sedley off in her own little tiddly world during "Joe has gone fishing."
It is such an intense, brilliant, moving and utterly shattering work.
I think the one bit I can add to the discussion is a small point - but still important. In the storm scene, the lighting was just amazing. I was so bewildered by the lighting and the crashing of the doors, it's amazing. The intensity of the music was mirrored so well by the doors - I know it sounds crazy. We've all been in storms or in weather where doors have slammed with intensity that surprises us; but the way the doors just opened and closed so brilliantly all the time added to the intensity and brutality of the storm.
Three other things I utterly adored - 1) Jud Arthur's swagger and arrogance 2) PCW's ability to spit and capture his wine in his cup!! 3) Margaret Corcoran - I've adored Margaret for a long time as a chorus member, I think she is a fantastic ensemble actor and I admit, as much as I hate to, in many OA productions the acting of the chorus is a bit sub standard. Never ever have I thought this of Margaret - my eyes were completely drawn to her in ensemble scenes (when I wanted to look at the chorus).
This opera is so dear to my heart - never before have I stomped or clapped so hard in my life. My hands have never been sore but I have never been so depressed leaving the Opera Theatre - I just loved it so much that it brought me to tears. Another thing I just remembered, the way Stuart got little Nicholas (John) at the curtain call and brought him into the middle - that actually bought me to tears as well. Maybe it was a combination of everything - I just lost it though.
You got me thinking about the experience of the "live". I didn't know it wasn¹t recorded and was disappointed, but then I think it will become legendary. In years to come it will be "were you there" moment.
I was just so moved by the powerful music, the amazing depiction of the human character that anyone of us could be, the extraordinary performances of the chorus, the soloists and the orchestra. Massive emotional range and the pinnacle of what opera is. I know I can not live without opera but now every cell in my body knows this too. What joy that this is my job!
These performances of Peter Grimes were the best of anything I have ever seen live. Those of us who were lucky to be there and appreciated the experience will surely look back at it fondly for years to come. I also discovered two wonderful singers: Stuart Skelton and Susan Gritton. With Skelton, I'd never heard such a massive voice which could be scaled down so beautifully when necessary (e.g. his Act 1 aria and the mad scene). And he's the tenor with the best dramatic skills since Jon Vickers, in my opinion. I further developed my appreciation of Peter Coleman-Wright, whom I'd only previously heard as Pizarro in Fidelio. His rich, expressive sound and excellent acting are quite unique. Furthermore, I was very impressed with two young artists in the cast: David Corcoran as Bob Boles and Andrew Moran as Ned Keene. They gave great vocal performances and interesting characterisations (quite original in the case of Andrew Moran's Ned Keene, I thought).
I attended 5 performances, and while going through them in my head, the following is what most stands out (and sorry if it gets too long):
- The front curtain: based, I believe, on John Constable's 'Rainstorm over the sea'. It clearly reminds us of where the opera is set, but also points to the theme of 'man vs nature' which Britten was interested in and points to the tempestuous psychological nature of what we're about to experience.
- The few seconds after the curtain is raised but the music hasn't started yet, Dr Crabbe leading Peter down the aisle, sitting him down, looking at the congregation, then turning and nodding to the conductor to get things started. I still haven't completely made up my mind about the prominent role given by Neil Armfield to Dr Crabbe, but these few seconds at least allows us to absorb the atmosphere of the setting before the music starts.
- Swallow's booming, pretentious and self-righteous "I swear by Almighty God".
- How Grimes turns his head and looks at Swallow when the latter doesn't let him finish his "I swear by Almighty God" and starts the next phrase of the oath. He feels the hostility but tries to contain himself, he's nervous and uncomfortable but manages to keep his composure.
- Grimes' "Three days", piano, emotionally affected by having to go through this event mentally again and in front of all these people.
- Sedley's reaction to the chorus' "When women gossip the result is someone doesn't sleep at night", which is directed at her. It can often be easy to assume in this opera that it's always Grimes versus the majority of the village, and that the villagers are always united and no conflict exists amongst them. However, these few seconds reminded me immediately that there are also conflicts between the villagers themselves throughout the opera (e.g., Boles v the rector), and of how true this is in real society.
-Ellen's facial expression and the reassuring looks she gives Peter while he is being questioned.
- Peter's reaction to Swallow's advice and the verdict, finally losing his composure: "The charges that no court has made will be shouted at my head". Grabbing Swallow's book/diary and slamming it on the table (Skelton didn't do this in every performance).
- The lighting during the 'Dawn' interlude and the subsequent chorus scene, so evocative.
- Balstrode quietly wandering towards his seat down stage right, commanding attention without saying a word.
- Dr Crabbe enjoying watching the boys play with the rope. Then his reaction to Balstrode scaring them off (he does so playfully but convincingly and with plenty of voice!).
- Balstrode's "A long way out. Sea horses... Watch for your lives". Vocally rich and authoritative, but also with a hint of foreboding.
- The nieces: playful, girlish, alternatingly naive and cheeky. Vocally attractive too.
- Auntie with her eyes and a head nod urging Balstrode and Ned Keene to go help Grimes with the boat.
- The chorus & orchestra in "What! And be Grimes' messenger? You?". We start to see and hear what (most of) these villagers are like.
- Ellen's "Whatever you say, I'm not ashamed". Powerfully sung, while Grimes looks at her, holding back an urge to say or express something.
- Grimes and Balstrode sitting downstage at opposite sides, checking the sky out at sea, both in their element.
- The chorus' "Ellen- you're leading us a dance, fetching boys for Peter Grimes..." and Ellen's response "Whatever you say..." Powerful voices, the temperature starts to rise...
- Balstrode's "Look! The storm cone!" and the ensuing chorus and shouts of "A high tide coming...". The storm, both out at sea and within this village, is brewing.
- Grimes' reactions during this scene. He enjoys it, looking out to sea and smiling excitedly.
- Balstrode's and Grimes' duet, excellently sung, Peter Coleman Wright's intelligent highlighting of key words/phrases ("You'd slip these moorings if you had the mind", "but not to mention crimes", "open verdict", "set a conscience free", "you fool, man, you fool").
- Grimes' shout "...shall stay!" and the change into "What harbour shelters peace...". Then the storm thunders in, he walks backwards with his hands on his head, with an excited expression on his face, then exits.
- That storm interlude! Wow! I felt like the orchestra was grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me everywhere. Then that beautiful, lyrical bit with the harp and the "What harbour shelters peace" theme.
- Pub scene: Balstrode's "Sorry. I didn't see you, missis". Hilarious. Peter C-W's domination of the scene continues until Grimes' entrance.
- Balstrode's 'spitting' in his drink during Auntie's "Loud man" and in sync w/ the music. Brilliant. It actually made me laugh.
- Bob Boles' vomit. Hehe sorry. But it was truly well done.
- Ned Keene's "You'll have to stay if you want your pills" and "Everybody's very quiet". Brilliant.
- "Mind that doooooor!"
- One of the best bits of singing I've ever heard live: Grimes' "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades..." Meltingly touching pianissimi, heartfelt chest notes. I remember feeling time standing still, not taking a breath during the entire aria, then recovering (hence the few seconds between "He's mad or drunk" and Boles' "You've sold your soul, Grimes" are a bit of a blur).
- A very keen Ned Keene starting the famous round: "Old Joe has gone fishing".
- Grimes working himself up during the round, until he finally bursts in and everything becomes a frenzy. "Oh haul a-way!", completely out of control, he screams out at the nieces.
- The boy. His tiny size surprised me on opening night, but he won me over within a few seconds with the look on his eyes and his gestures. What an amazing silent performance.
- "Home? Do you call that home?!"
- The beginning of Act 2. The lighting- Sunday morning or what?!
- How Dr Crabbe and the boys all stop when Grimes passes by (during the orchestra's "Glitter of waves" theme), goes out, and comes back in hauling his boat across the hall.
- Peter Carroll (Dr Crabbe): a stroke of genius in my opinion when he grabs a chair and lifts it in sync with the music when it picks up again. Talk about merging action with music!
- Ellen's "Nothing to tell me, nothing to say?" and the boy's expression. I can't really describe it, but I found it heartbreaking.
- The offstage church chorus. Something so eerie about it, even sinister perhaps. Maybe it's just my aversion to religion, though, so it might be a personal bias.
- Ellen's "But when you came... Every day I pray it may be so" and "Innocent you've learned how near life is to torture" and "Storms and all its terrors are nothing to the heart's despair". Such wonderfully expressive singing, and acting to complement it perfectly (both from Susan Gritton and the boy).
- The boy's reaction when he sees Peter coming from a distance, how he shrinks behind a chair, then stands up bravely and puts on his jacket. Extremely touching.
- The whole Ellen/Peter duet, how Grimes is trying to hold it in again, but just can't and lashes out at Ellen, and his "So be it! And God have mercy upon me!". Thrilling but also heart-sinking.
- "Grimes is at his exercise!"
- How the crowd slowly whips itself up into a frenzy. All the interjections from the characters, especially the Rector's wicked "You planned to be worldly-wise but your souls were dark" and Boles' snarling "Call it danger, call it hardship or plain murder".
- "The Borough keeps its standards up!".
- Of course, the hypnotic appeal of Hobson's drum and "Now is gossip put on trial". I agree w/ Simon, for a moment you almost feel like standing up, jumping on stage, and joining the mob as they leave to chase after Grimes. And excellently sung by the chorus.
- "From the gutter". I must confess that when I first listened to Peter Grimes at the beginning of the year, I didn't like this bit. But it has gradually become one of my favourite parts of the opera, thanks to both the music and the text. The music just transports me into the minds of these women, and the words make me reflect on a whole lot of issues relevant to our lives. On top of that, it was marvellously sung, with soaring yet heartfelt voices combining with the orchestra to overwhelm my senses and make my heart sink to its lowest point in the opera so far. Another point in this opera at which time seems to stand still.
- Passacaglia: Another confession, I like this interlude but it is probably my least favourite. Listening to Mark Wigglesworth talk about it in Opera Australia's podcast of its Britten Symposium certainly helped me understand its purpose, which I truly admire. However, I'm not very sure about the chair-stacking bit, to be honest I don't understand it very well ... At this point in time I feel it would've been better to play it with the curtain down, or at least with stage lights blacked out, seeing as it's the halfway point of the opera and it could offer that sort of reflective respite to the audience while focusing on the music and not being distracted by the chair-moving on stage (which was my experience of it). The only bit I truly like is when the stage moves forward, somewhat pushing Dr Crabbe towards the edge. That bit complements the music perfectly and is theatrically valid, in my opionion.
- The beginning of Grimes' hut scene, we see him struggling with his temper, torment still obviously raging within him from his argument with Ellen but still in a hurry to get out to sea. His grunting after "Go there!" reflects this (Skelton grunts loudly in several moments throughout the opera, adding emotional impact to the dramatic situation, I loved all these instances).
- How the music changes just before "Look! Now is our chance! The whole sea's boiling". I can actually feel, hear, smell, see it boiling underneath (aided by the lighting)!
- "In dreams I've built myself some kindlier home". Another of the best bits of singing I've ever experienced live. We get a full glimpse at a side of Grimes' personality which had previously only been hinted at. The way Skelton sings phrases such as "...like September haze", "Compared with us the rich man would be poor" and "...and a woman's care" provoked reactions in me which I can't describe but hope never to forget. In those instants, just briefly, I WANTED to be Peter Grimes. I didn't feel pity for him, I admired him. I think this is party of Stuart Skelton's interpretive prowess: making us react in ways we never thought we could and have feelings we never thought we could have towards Grimes.
- Grimes' whispers: "He's there now, I can see him, he is there!", referring to the dead apprentice but directed at Dr Crabbe.
- Everything from "Step boldly" to the end of the act. The boy's fall is excellently staged. It was so shocking and terrifying on opening night, and it remained so even in subsequent performances I attended, even though the element of surprise was gone. Grimes spacing out when he hears the knocking, the lunge towards the door to try and catch the rope, his reaction (and the cry he gave on closing night!). Then Balstrode looking up to see the rope gone, and opening the door. Immense credit to PCW here, it could be easy to overact this scene with excessive facial gestures and movements, but he kept it perfectly in accordance with the quiet suspense & thrill but also sadness of the music.
- The moonlight interlude. I agree with Simon, what a wonderful lighting effect, with Dr Crabbe sitting there at sunset then gradually getting darker. Great move to leave the curtain up and show Dr Crabbe in his troubled, almost resigned mood during this interlude.
- The nieces, so effectively providing a bit of comic respite with the aid of Ned Keene.
- That offstage band. Perfectly harmless music on the surface but I remember thinking from the beginning that there was something evil about it. Simon pointed out to me that the barn dance is related to the lynch-mob chorus that comes shortly afterwards.
- "Good night, good people, good night". Dr Crabbe waving, the rector drunkenly struggling to walk across the hall.
- "Crime which my hobby is". Sedley moving forward and followed by Dr Crabbe in front and to her left, facing her and walking backwards. Excellent stuff.
- Embroidery aria. So much feeling yet dejection in the voice.
- Balstrode's "In the black moment...", such nobility of sound and character merged together, one of the most moving bits of the opera for me after hearing/seeing PCW do it.
- Sedley's "Mr Swallow. Mr Swallow. I want the lawyer Swallow.". This is where that band gets really sinister.
- "Who holds himself apart lets his pride rise". The villagers start to work themselves up, but this time there is true menace in their music and their faces. Chillingly sung.
- "Aa Aa Aa etc" .. "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Grimes!". All I can say is, I've never been this terrified inside a theatre in my life. Never have my senses been so overwhelmed by sound and drama as in these few seconds. That mob running downstage, stopping at the very front and shouting "Peter Grimes!" at the top of their lungs is simply undescribable. Those who where there know what I mean. I'm not exaggerating when I say I still haven't recovered from this.
- Fog interlude & mad scene. Such a swift change from the heightened hatred of the mob into the state of Grimes' mind. Difficult to deal with. Stuart Skelton's mad scene is probably the best performance of anything, anywhere that I've ever seen live. "What is home?". Then for "The first one died, just died. The other slipped, and died" he turns and sings/speaks out to the audience, as if saying to us "Look at me, it wasn't my fault, I'm a good man, but I'm not perfect, and now I must pay". I love his bass imitation of Swallow- "Accidental circumstances" (excellent for a tenor!). Then "Ellen. Ellen, give me your hand. Your hand. There now- my hope is held by you". This is where I just lose it. Like Grimes at times, I've been trying to hold it in, but seeing this big man, on his knees, endlessly tormented, demented, with an angry mob after him wanting to kill him, just breaks whatever's left of my heart that evening and whenever I've relived it in my mind since. "Come home! Come home! Peter Grimes!"...
- Peter's "What harbour shelters peace..." at Ellen.
- Balstrode's "Come on, I'll help you with the boat". Again, Peter C-W makes of these few seconds one of the most touching scenes I've ever seen, his pacing of it is slow and heavy, perhaps reflecting the weight he carries in his soul while he speaks to Grimes one last time.
- And the switch to the Act 1 'Dawn interlude' theme. In the Borough, another day begins, life goes on and will always go on. They're oblivious to what they've done. Nothing will change. They'll do it again.
"In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide. Flowing it fills the channel broad and wide. Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep. It rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep.".
A child walks the rope. Is this what life is about? Walking the rope, trying not to fall off? Is he a little Peter Grimes?
I forgot to add one more detail about my experience. In most great operas, the end of each act is one of the best parts of that work, and a sign of a great production is one that recognises this and stages it in a way that complements the music and highlights the action so as to leave us motionless and breathless for several seconds, even after the curtain has fallen. No production in my experience has achieved this better than this Grimes. That Act 1 ending with "Home? Do you call that home?" and the lights blackout was overwhelming. Then Act 2 in total contrast, with Dr Crabbe and Dr Sedley's eyes meeting silently but with an intensity beyond words, and a slow curtain followed by several seconds of silence by almost the entire audience. And finally Act 3, with the chorus carrying on with business as usual and the boy walking the rope, and a slow curtain that allows us to absorb the last images and sounds of the evening for just a little bit longer in that breathtaking silence.
There's no doubt most of the credit is Britten's and Slater's in creating these amazing scenes to end each act, but Armfield's and his creative team's staging of them was so original and simple yet admirably effective, both visually and emotionally. These scenes were certainly a significant part of the magic we witnessed at these performances.
With all the justifiable definitives about the perfomance team, I keep coming back to the ancient, if not only, art of story telling and that this was story telling of the highest order.
Don't forget Britten, Slater, and Armfield, and Wigglesworth, when the tally day comes.
The elderly man, in front of me, who sobbed silently into his handkerchief for the whole of the last act on the last night; the release of tension and spontaneous outburst at the end of Act 1 on Wednesday night mid-run; work friend and high profile professional, mother of three, running down the stairs at interval red-eyed and cheeks stained; sitting next to the boy's (Nicholas) teary mother, twice, by chance, the emotion of the moment and the coincidence turning us into the oldest of friends.
It will stay with me as an especially emotional time when some barriers were broken down.
So many of the great moments above were supported by, and often created by, a conductor completely at one with the music.
Watching him from B-row, it was as if his whole body expressed every complex cross-rhythm so intensely and so clearly, and the orchestra responded so gratefully, and with such passion and dedication. You could feel their mutual regard and how much it meant to them (orchestra and conductor) to be part of this production.
Also he IS the director on the night, not just in the sense of holding it all together, but actually creating the drama in moments like the chorus shouting "Peter Grimes", where it's the sharpness of the cuts to silence, and the very daring LENGTH of the silences, that pin the audience to their seats!
And so much of the singing would have been shaped by his incredible musicianship - ask the singers! The extreme dynamic contrasts, the quick changes of tempo moment to moment that are so challenging to bring off, but that make the thing breathe like a living thing, and make you feel you're experiencing it as it happens.
I'm sure he would have also helped guide the singers towards that perfect union of character and voice that others have written about here and that so mark this fantastic production.
Mark Wigglesworth rocks!
I'm very loathe to comment after such amazing insights, but one thought!!
I was genuinely frightened by the level of malevolence contained within Mrs Sedley as it was played by Elizabeth Campbell. I had always imagined her as no more than the local busy-body, gossip and mild interferer in the affairs of all the other people - essentially harmless.
It struck me though that she was far, far more than just this and that she was out to seek the total destruction of Grimes and nothing short of his total demise would satisfy her. The thrill of her ultimate victory was just amazing -it was the smug look of moral triumph and total satisfaction that she gave that absolutely hit me in the solar-plexus!! I thought EC was superb in this role. (It made me realise how critical all the "minor" parts are in this opera. Each by themselves may be small in terms of their vocal contributions, but each was monumentally critical to the overall portrait that was being painted.)
I actually thought Sedley was genuinely evil, but I'm not entirely certain that this is and was the intention of Britten with this particular character???
I still find it difficult to articulate why this opera in this production with this cast has affected me, and so many others, so deeply and has completely changed the way I see the company and what can be achieved here. I will start with a huge thank you to everyone involved in this production, from the cast to the production team, not a wrong step was made and it made for several incredible nights, and one afternoon, of pure theatrical magic. I know that when I look back on my opera going experiences, this production will be the one that I will be telling people, "I was there..."
When I originally heard either at the Symposium (or from a someone at OA) that it was to be set in a hall, I was wary. But it just worked so well & it was so much more effective than the previous production (which was a restudied version of the 1986 Copley production). I still have lines going through my head & never the same ones.
Richard Hickox: I think it is tragic that Richard Hickox never got to bring to fruition the production that he had so personally crafted. It is thanks to his foresight in picking the perfect cast and production team that we have the "Peter Grimes" we have experienced.
The Set: The incredible set, that many have already discussed in depth, and rightly so, was not only perfectly detailed and atmospheric, it was like an identical copy of every school, church and community hall I have known. It didn't convey Englishness or the Sea (these were more than fittingly evoked in the brilliant conducting of Mark Wigglesworth and the sublime music of Benjamin Britten), it conveyed the sense of community, and particularly, a tight knit, closed community. To myself it felt like this drama could be taking place in my community, in any community hall I have known, conveying simply the universality of the drama and its characters. I have to say the first thing I thought at the end of the Inquest scene was where did they get all the matching metal chairs. (Perhaps a kindly community hall somewhere donated a whole collection...)
The Lighting: This was probably the best use of light ever on the Opera House stage. Day became night, became dawn, became twilight... Just amazing... Thank you Damien Cooper
The Costumes: Just perfect!! Particularly the perfect evocation of period in the women's costumes. (Several friends commented on the beautiful shoes, they went looking for some last week. They haven't been successful yet...)
Neil Armfield: Once again, Neil Armfield came, saw and conquered. A towering masterpiece of a production, that hopefully like his production of "Billy Budd" will travel around the world and set the standard for other companies' productions. The most vivid moment for me, the children running around during the Sunday Morning interlude. Just perfection!! With these performances Neil Armfield has got to have become one of the greatest living opera directors...
The Audience: For many of the audience who came back again and again, thank you!! More than any other time I have been to the Opera House, the audience at these performances seemed transformed by the drama on stage and the music to talk with each other, to the complete strangers sitting next to them, to the people in the foyers they met, etc. The performance became a community experience. By Act Three, as the chorus screamed out "Peter Grimes" you could feel the collective silence of the audience and the hearts of everyone in the theatre pounding. Bravo to the audience for their response, without it this experience would have perhaps been very different and not as fulfilling.
Mark Wigglesworth and the Orchestra: For a score I thought I knew, I was blown away that in the theatre, it was like I had never heard the score. The interludes sounded glorious, as did everything. The Sea, the Wind and the inner workings of the characters' mind was so vividly evoked by the superb playing of the entire orchestra. Mark Wiggleworth's conducting was so fresh, so vivid, just so right. I don't think I had ever so strongly felt the presence of the conductor at a performance. Mr Wigglesworth, Please Don't be a Stranger, come back soon!!!
The Chorus: Magnificent!! Perhaps the best they have ever sounded. In this opera where the chorus really is a central character, they sang and acted their roles perfectly!!
The Cast: THANK YOU!! I have left the cast until last as I have been trying to think of what to say. The beautiful nieces of Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig, the evil "Miss Marple"-like Mrs Sedley of Elizabeth Campbell, Catherine Carby's earthy yet worldly-wise Auntie, David Corcoran's fantastic Bob Boles, the jolly Ned Keene of Andrew Moran, the gruff Hobson of Jud Arthur, Kanen Breen's Rector and the pompous Swallow of Richard Anderson all sang magnificiently and acted so perfectly. The casting was perfect. Peter Carroll brought his gravitas and nuanced actoring to Doctor Crabbe. He evoked the character so well and acted so well, I forgot that I never heard him say anything, although I could have sworn I knew what the character's voice would have sounded like. Peter Coleman-Wright made Balstrode stand out in a way that I had never noticed before. Suddenly what had always been just another Borough character in my mind, became an outstanding performance from one of our true stars, vocally beautiful and acted so wonderfully. It is such a pity we didn't think up a plan to stop Susan Gritton from leaving the country earlier. She has gone from being a soprano I have never heard of to the soprano whose recordings I am eager to collect. In her subtle, moving performance of Ellen Orford, she made me cry every time she sang "Embroidery". Susan, Please Come Back Soon... Finally, but definitely not least, Stuart Skelton is a STAR. I think that few here had realised the amazing potential of Stuart. His singing made me look at the role and the whole opera in a new way. Stuart Skelton is one of the very few singers, I would go to the theatre to hear sing anything and I do I mean anything. His "Great Bear and Pleiades" is a moment that is burnt into my being. If Stuart Skelton's name is not already a household name within in the opera-going community, just wait till he starts recording, there is mega-star potential. At the moment all I can find is the DVD of Merlin and CD of Die Walkure, Stuart you need to record more and come back here at least on a yearly basis...
OK so I know the continual use of the word "perfect" is maybe a bit much, but what else is there to say. Nearly a week on from the last performance and I still can not adequately describe this experience. Words fail me in the face of such a towering artistic accomplishment...
As a member of the chorus it is so heartening/gratifying/humbling to know that what the whole company were experiencing and trying to portray really made it past the footlights. It is certainly the most exciting and satisfying opera I have been involved in so far.
One of my most powerful memories of the production is the first time I walked onto the set; well, into the hall is a more accurate description of how it felt. A group of us just wandered about it speechless - we looked at one another shaking our heads in awe. You could practically smell the mildew, dust and years of village dances, speech nights etc etc.
It is a terrible shame that it wasn't recorded for broadcast or sale but in a way that makes the experience and memories of it more poignant.
I am so heartened as a professional opera educator (that very rare bird) to see what depth and complexity of response this production has elicited. Marvellous!! It is what I spend my life hoping for and wondering about. So thanks all for these treasured responses. I would like to add my voice to those that were moved and excited by being part of a living breathing audience that engaged in a rare way with this work of art.I was thrilled to have so many of my friends, musician colleagues and students see performances and it has been a lively discussion subject ever since - and clearly has life in it to come!
Peter Grimes is the archetypal outsider. For many of us involved in artistic life in Australia this role is a very familiar one. Grimes is a fellow traveller - part of that strange tribe of misfits that populate the artistic and intellectual fringes of a sports/money crazed society. But the Borough are our tribe too. The inspired set with its familiarity as any hall in this country from Hornsby to Mudgee and beyond established from the first minute the curtain rose. We may disown the closed small-mindedness of the borough and laugh and cry at their foibles, but it is an accurate and frightening portrait of our own internal judgers and external social structures. There is much in the Borough to strike fear into our hearts. The wordless chorus of act three is the climax and inevitable euphoric and terrorladen expression of all that the borough are. It is the primal scream of the group, the need to belong, the need to place blame outside, to scapegoat the outsider - the one with visions beyond the group's definition of reality. That Britten uses the "landler" melody of the pub celebrations- an Austrian folk tune transformed Shostakovich-like into an anthem of mob extasy and revenge - is for me the epiphany of this masterwork. That Britten was a pacifist returned from self exile during the early years of world war two - brings his choice of this melody into focus. The fascist possibilities within his own local community expressed here are further explored in the devastating power of his War Requiem. In this age of the so called War against Terror, we are reminded to look within for the seeds of our fear and violence. These are the sort of big issues that "Peter Grimes" explores - subtly, ambiguously, with its beautifully crafted libretto, as much the achievement of Pears and Britten as the outsider communist Montagu Slater, and its score of peerless perfection in vocal writing and orchestration.
This was all realised and brought into the auditorium with such force and passion by this creative team and cast, creating an unforgettable artistic experience. No-one can be singled out - though I would like to add my praise to Richard Hickox, Stuart Maunder and management who together with Neil Armfield would have first conceived this production about three years ago....
Stuart Skelton was born to sing Peter Grimes. When I saw his Siegmund at the Adelaide Ring and then sat with him for the Siegried (thanks Meredith!) it was my first thought - this man must sing Grimes! Luckily I was not alone and we have all now had the opportunity to experience one of the great operatic performances of a lifetime.
Let's hope it is recorded again in the next few years - though a better cast and chorus could not be found, and the ABC recording for all its faults as a live recording will have a treasured place in my collecion alongside Pears, Vickers, Glenn Winslade's marvellous 2004 recording with Colin Davis and Anthony Dean Griffey's at the Met. Everything about Stuart's Grimes was truthful, deeply felt, excitingly physical, vocally masterful and spiritually uplifting. I cannot now single out individual moments as it was such a complete performance. Though as the run progressed he took more vocal and physical risks - the little grunts and coughs, the impassioned screams and the courageous "otherness" of his physicality stand out now in memory....
I will leave others to applaud the other singers and add only that the cast was not to be changed and worked as a fine ensemble yet with minute details in every minor role bringing a shimmering brilliance to my memories of this exceptional work.
Peter Carroll (Dr. Crabbe) & Stuart Skelton.
This show was so astonishingly rich in detail, so perfectly rendered, that one could freeze any frame of the imaginary DVD and, voilà, material enough for a whole essay. Since I can't document the entire show, however, I've limited myself to just ten of my most cherished fragments. In truth there are thousands.
-That opening. The curtain which rose, not to music, but to silence and then village chatters. Stuart Skelton's slow progress to the front of the stage, Peter Carroll at his side; and then Carroll's signal to begin, which even then, felt somehow so right I don't think I questioned his presence for an instant. The reality of that opening scene took my breath away. There I was, sitting in an audience and looking at another audience on stage — and I felt keenly that we were the unreal audience, the artificial creation; those on stage were far more real than we were. So extraordinary was that first impression, it took me several minutes to make out the familiar faces in the crowd. "Oh, Catherine Carby. And there's Lorina Gore. And [last of all] that scruffy sea-captain is Peter Coleman-Wright!" They were Borough folk first, Opera Australia singers second, and that persisted from start to finish and in every performance.
-The set. I didn't know I could love a set so much. And Ralph Myers did not extravagantly court such passion. He made a drab town hall into a work of art and yet kept it as true-to-drab-life as could be. Why was it so beautiful, then? Maybe because it was as completely lifelike as its inhabitants. In opera, we're used to sets whose proportions are distorted to fill a stage, but Myers' town hall seemed to fill exactly the space it would in real life, and while this seems a dull observation, I found that realism quite entrancing. The same description, entrancing realism, could be applied to Tess Schofield's costumes and to Damien Cooper's lighting too. Everyone was on the same page, and everyone contributed their own special magic to depict Borough life with unsettling — and yet perpetually beautiful — verisimilitude. And oh, oh, oh, how I covet Lorina Gore's red shoes.
-Forgive me, I keep returning to this theme of realism — I loved the way people moved about the set, the way it was populated. No clustering the action at the front: the villagers were scattered about the hall, each going about his or her business. Everywhere, something was happening — but not frenetically, not excessively; it wasn't Zeffirelli, it was just life. And when two people spoke/sang to one another, they turned and faced each other, even if that meant turning their back on the audience. So often we see lovers (or enemies) hold impassioned discussions while standing side-by-side or one behind the other; not here, and that's an aspect of this production I simply adored.
-Moving in the space of a few hours from what still felt like a cursory knowledge of the score, to a feeling that every note of it was in my blood and always had been. I thought I knew Peter Grimes before opening night — I had no idea. It is jaw-dropping stuff, and who better to reveal that all that malevolence, eerie beauty and just plain power than the revelator, Mark Wigglesworth, who led what was hands down the best playing I've ever heard from the AOBO. Five days since closing night and my head is still half stuck in this music. How can one opera burst with such richness, such variety, and yet not explode into chaos? Passage after passage becomes lodged in my brain; it's become one of my operas, whatever that means; I'm emotionally attached it, protective even. It's mine.
-One could run into thousands of bullet points singling out particular passages of the score. The one I'll choose here is the wordless chorus in Act Three. I choose it even though it's a passage I'm completely unable to describe; or maybe I choose it because I can't describe it. It's deeply moving and yet deeply violent as well, a sort of beautiful horror. If I could sing and be a chorister for just five minutes of my life, this is the one thing I would want to sing. I am in awe of the mind which devised such a piece of writing; it is true inspiration, the heart of a very wordful opera expressed in devastating wordlessness. A share of the awe goes also to our chorus, and to their chorusmaster, Michael Black: the level of the devastation was in large part their doing.
-Eye contact. Stolen glances, lingering gazes. People in this show really looked at each other. The instance which stands out strongest in my mind is Stuart's "Who can turn skies back and begin again?" where he moved his gaze from the horizon to Dr Crabbe, a desperate, childlike pleading in his eyes. And that gaze was met square on by the benevolent yet powerless Crabbe — as both poet and father, the one figure in Peter's life who once had the power to let him begin again, but who, having set his creation on his course, is as bound as Peter is by the inevitability of his fate.
-The total shock of the first time the rope slipped — and before that, the first time the stage moved forward to become Grimes's hut. These were potent effects even on repeated viewing, but on opening night, my heart was in my mouth. The staging of John's fall is the most genuinely terrifying thing I've seen onstage, and Stuart's bodily lunge after him was a jolt every time. It didn't matter that one's rational mind knew there was only stage machinery outside that door — the precipice, the boiling sea, the fatal drop, these were the reality.
-Little stabs to the heart. (I'm cheating with this, many fragments in one.) The boy bursting into tears, Ellen bursting into tears, Balstrode turning to give Ellen a smile before following the mob, Lorina Gore's face in "From the gutter", Peter trying to pick up on the beat of "Old Joe has gone fishing", the night when the boy had trouble putting his coat on and Stuart oh-so-gently helped him with it, Ellen's hand on Peter's arm, Peter in Dr Crabbe's arms, Ellen in Balstrode's arms. Dr Crabbe's fluid, feline, eloquent movements; chair arranging made art.
-The audience. The electricity which ran through the theatre at every performance is something few of us will ever forget. I've never felt a magic like it. Stunned silence giving way to the most impassioned ovations I've ever known. Feet stomping even at the begining of Act Three. Two standing ovations. The orchestra's own applause for Wigglesworth. And in the intermissions too, we were a different audience from usual. At a practical level, yes, that's something to do with company rush discount having been made widely available; but we were different emotionally too. The atmosphere was different. Leaving the theatre on opening night reminded me strangely of leaving a funeral. Not the misery or grief of it, but that sense of a shared experience and of mutual support, all of us subdued and teary, and somehow, it seemed, looking after one another. Sometimes I regard audiences as a bit of a necessary evil; on these six nights (consumptives excluded) they were friends and family.
-Three words: Stuart, Susan, Peter. It's either three or three thousand, and the three thousand are still to come. That's why they're not much mentioned in the above. I couldn't relegate any of them to a bullet point or a single moment. There's much more to be said.
Something to add? Leave your own reflections in the comments. It's never too late.