THE mighty Bergen Philharmonic in full flow, a world-renowned tenor in the lead role, the superb acoustics of the Usher Hall: put it all together, and it’s hard to imagine a more compelling Peter Grimes, writes Susan Nickalls.
In Norway they call it “bygdedyret”, which means village animal or beast; the phenomenon of the collective “mental monster” of a small community who ostracise anyone they perceive as “other”. For such a quintessentially English opera as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the theme of the “outcast” or “outsider” nevertheless has a universal resonance.
At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) will present the concert performance of the Bergen National Opera production first unveiled in May at the Bergen International Festival. For me, the melding of outstanding soloists with the full might of the BPO let loose on stage was a sensational experience.
Gardner, the BPO’s chief conductor, believes that the opera is not only an allegory for our times, but also a perfect vehicle to show off the BPO’s strengths. “I knew there was something in the sound and story that the orchestra and choruses in Bergen, itself a small community framed by the sea, could capture that would be really special. The Bergen Phil has a vibrancy with a lovely old-fashioned quality to the string sound. Together with keening flutes and a macabre lightness to the bassoons and oboes, they evoke the soundworld where Peter Grimes exists. You can hear the English coastline, you can hear Aldburgh where Britten lived and you can hear his relationship to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck as well as American musical elements.”
Bringing such muscular vibrancy to Britten’s score is something Gardner has worked on with the orchestra over the past few years, picking up the baton from his predecessor, the American conductor Andrew Litton, who had played a lot of American repertoire with the orchestra. Gardner says that these concerts, along with his recordings of Janacek and Bartok with the BPO, made a huge difference.
“Add this to the orchestral pallet and you’ve got everything this opera needs. Grimes is a totally virtuosic piece and some of my most memorable performances of it are when the orchestra are on stage.
“Like Pelléas et Mélisande, in Peter Grimes the orchestra are the main protagonist; they are the sea around all these lost characters. If you grade the dynamics of the opera well, during the first storm interlude in the middle of act one it should feel like there’s a force of nature unleashed that’s bigger than the singers.”
Gardner has a strong affinity with Peter Grimes and Britten – not least because he shares a St Cecilia’s Day birthday with the composer. The first productions of the opera he conducted in 2009 were with his old company, English National Opera (ENO). It was in Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the ENO’s former home, that the premiere of Peter Grimes took place in 1945, and this, says Gardner, makes the opera very special for him.
“It’s a transcendental piece on many levels. There are moments when you need to feel the strength of mob, something which is in the news almost daily now, and in great performances of Grimes you get that when you have the entire chorus screaming, “Peter Grimes” at the top of their voices. I often think how extraordinary that must have been for the audience in 1945 war-ravaged London to hear music of such feral intensity.”
The ENO performances also marked the beginning of many fruitful collaborations between Gardner and Stuart Skelton, who will sing Grimes in Edinburgh. The Australian tenor is, quite rightly, world-renowned for his astonishing interpretation of this role he has made his own. His Grimes is a complex character who challenges the preconceptions of the audience in quite a profound way. They feel anger, sympathy and then at the end, a collective guilt as Skelton leaves to sail off and sink his boat.
Did he or didn’t he have a hand in the deaths of the two young boys who died in his care? This is the nub of the opera and Gardner believes it’s important to maintain this ambiguity, leaving these “question marks hanging” in the audience’s mind.
There is often a notion that concert performances of opera are somehow inferior to a staged production. But with the costumes and scenery largely stripped away in this version of Peter Grimes, the music and storytelling elements are given more oxygen.
They’re framed by Vera Rostin Wexelsen’s simple but ingenious stage concept. She has the soloists and chorus wear their own clothes in muted blues, greys, browns and blacks, which makes the red jersey of the missing boy all the more poignant. In the BPO’s version, the boy is a heart-breakingly young ten or 12.
Props like barrels, fishing nets and for Ellen, knitting, enable the singers to bring a visceral physicality to their parts, while having the orchestra on stage makes the music “more present”, says Gardner.
“In the pit, the sound can sometimes be a bit veiled and the orchestra don’t really hear the singers or know what level to play at. When the musicians are on stage, they’re really listening, as the Bergen players do so wonderfully, so they won’t play louder than the singers because they can hear every nuance the singers are trying to project. Fortunately Peter Grimes is extremely well-scored in the way that the music accompanies the voice.”
Skelton heads a strong line-up of singers for the Edinburgh performance including Erin Wall (Ellen Orford), Christopher Purves (Captain Balstrode), Catheryn Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedley) and Susan Bickley (Auntie).
While the stage of the Usher Hall doesn’t leave as much room for the soloists to roam as at Bergen’s Grieghallen, Gardner says its superb acoustics more than make up for it.
“We’ll recreate the same sort of effect and I know the performance in Edinburgh will be another wonderful event. In many ways the sound in the Usher Hall will project much better to the audience than in Bergen. It has that gorgeous column of sound which is more contained, in the best way. I think it will be quite scary to hear that piece in that hall.”