The Gramophone Collection: Britten's Peter Grimes

The classic Decca recording under the composer's batonThe classic Decca recording under the composer's baton

‘Sadler’s Wells! Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman!’ It was June 1945 and the bus conductor on route 38 did not want his opera-loving passengers to miss their stop. Even as we smile at his wry humour, the story is a vivid sign of how Peter Grimes had become the talk of the town. It is easy to look back now and see what a pivotal role the work played in British operatic history – but why did the occasion have such an impact? What made Peter Grimes special? 

Although the end of the Second World War was heralding a brave new world, Benjamin Britten’s opera is as much about hanging on to tried-and-trusted formulae as it is a bold step into the future. The structure of Peter Grimes, with its arias and ensembles, could hardly be more traditional – however cleverly Britten twists the old forms to his purpose. Other operas may count among their highlights a passacaglia (Wozzeck), grand choruses (Otello), an all-female ensemble (Der Rosenkavalier) or a mad scene (Lucia di Lammermoor); none had previously packed its rich pudding of a score with the whole lot. 

In its theme, though, Peter Grimes ventured into new and controversial territory. There had been anti-heroes before Peter Grimes, but none had been accused of a crime so disturbing as child abuse and then had his creator try to solicit our sympathy as openly as does Britten. Whether the central character is a child abuser or not – the director of a stage production plays a crucial role in determining our verdict one way or the other – this is not a person with whom an audience instinctively wants to identify. Peter Grimes, the ‘sadistic fisherman’, sails too close to the wind. 

Britten’s calculated mix of the old and the new has assured Peter Grimes a very active performance history. It is no surprise that five further complete CD recordings have appeared, despite the presence of the composer’s own ‘authoritative’ version. It is the DVDs, however, that challenge existing notions of how the opera should be performed. As social attitudes have changed, and directors have dug into the opera’s psychological subtext, productions have increasingly taken Peter Grimes nearer to the edge. The more extreme of these (one example being a Paris staging that gave us a modern witch-hunt for a suburban paedophile) have not yet made it to DVD, but it can only be a matter of time. From everything we know about Britten, it’s a fair guess that he would have hated most of these productions, perhaps all. But, in tackling difficult social issues, the composer left the way open for interpretations that go a lot further than he can ever have intended. 

The creator's recordings

We are lucky to have three recordings featuring various of the opera’s creators – EMI’s selection of extracts from 1948, the complete Decca recording, and the BBC studio television film; but we might have been luckier still. In the afterglow of the premiere, there was a proposal to record the opera complete under the auspices of the British Council and it’s a real shame that the plan came to nothing. 

But EMI’s recording three years later did take two members of the original cast, Joan Cross and Peter Pears, and the conductor of the premiere, Reginald Goodall, into the studio. The extracts they recorded comprise about 38 minutes of the opera. The longest of these is the opening scene of Act 2, which Goodall paces unerringly, the raw edge of the Royal Opera orchestra’s playing almost adding to the excitement. It’s good to hear Cross as Ellen Orford, given her importance in the opera’s history, though she’s not the strongest of the role’s interpreters on record. The great prize of these early extracts is catching Pears in his prime, when his voice was still youthfully bright and firm. Grimes’s scene in his hut is sung with unrivalled expressiveness and the ‘mad scene’ blazes with intensity, as though snatched white-hot from the stage. An unmissable souvenir. When Decca came to make the first complete recording in 1958, Goodall helped out again: conductor Britten had put his shoulder out while shaving and so Goodall conducted rehearsals, though not the actual takes (hopefully, there will be no revelations here, like Robert Craft’s admission of conducting in place of Stravinsky). The result is a splendid recording, strong on almost every count and sounding nothing like its age. The Royal Opera orchestra now proved more proficient in the score and Britten himself led a performance that is not just ideally paced, so adept was he at keeping the opera pressing forward, but dazzling in its detail. The orchestral sound is lean and clear, presenting an aural picture that is pervaded with a salt-sea tang. The cast is almost wholly new since the premiere: Claire Watson, an underrated soprano, makes a strong and true Ellen Orford, James Pease a sturdy Balstrode, and the supporting singers are fully engaged. Pears was nearing 50 by this point (it’s easy to forget how old he was in so many of Decca’s Britten recordings) and his voice had become looser: the vibrato is not as troubling as it would become later, but it is enough to take the edge off singing that is otherwise more at home in this testing role than any other tenor’s voice could hope to be. He was also uniquely placed to show us how sympathetic Britten intended Grimes to be. 

Just how far this is true becomes clear in the BBC television film (1969), released as a pristine DVD by Decca. Pears, now nearing 60 and in his final performance of the title role, looks too old, and age has continued to gnaw at the foundations of his voice. But seeing Pears as well as hearing him allows us to understand more completely the composer’s sympathy for his central character: when this Grimes sings to Ellen Orford, ‘We shall be free!’, we look in his eyes and believe him, and during the soliloquy in his hut it is clear that he genuinely holds on to his dream of the ‘life that we might share’. Here is a Peter Grimes who is not a lost case from curtain-up. With the exception of Owen Brannigan’s resident Swallow, the cast has been renewed again: Heather Harper is now Ellen Orford, singing with an ideal blend of strength and beauty, and Bryan Drake the dark-voiced Balstrode. Britten conducts a performance that is even tauter than before. The film, made in The Maltings at Snape, preserves a higher quality of sound and camerawork than one would expect from that period. Directed by Joan Cross, the production blends traditional sets and costumes with abstract images of sea and sky. As long as one can accept the ‘stagey’ acting – a lot of rolling eyes and arm-waving – this DVD can lay claim to being as authoritative in its own way as Decca’s audio recording. 

The CD recordings

When competition to the composer’s own recording came in 1978, it was from a team who had thoroughly ‘lived’ the opera at the Royal Opera House in London. The first of Colin Davis’s two sets of Peter Grimes offers a gripping contrast: in place of Britten’s bright-eyed quickness came a reading of dark, trenchant power. The sea vistas are wide, the storm awesome. Nothing less would work for Jon Vickers’s Grimes, who is a force of nature, both vocally and as a roaring tiger of a man who is steeped in violence. Vickers lives at extremes, and while listeners may be disturbed by his cavalier tendency to trample over details in the score, so fired up is he in his all-or-nothing search for dramatic truth that it’s hard not to surrender to his onslaught. Most Ellen Orfords would be crushed by this Grimes, but not Heather Harper, whose combination of strength of purpose and maternal warmth gets to the heart of the role. With Jonathan Summers’s forceful Balstrode leading a robust cast, the stage is set for the toughest Peter Grimes of the lot. 

Vickers’s Grimes, though, is no more the only way to play the role than Pears’s was before him. In Philip Langridge, Chandos’s set has a Peter Grimes of another type altogether and as mesmerising as any. Langridge approaches the role with the skills of a first-class actor, in line after line finding exactly the right stress or intonation to stamp his personal meaning on the words. All that matters about the drama here happens in Grimes’s mind and it is the very intelligence of the man, as Langridge portrays him, that makes his decline into despair and mental confusion so disturbing. To match his lean, keenly inflected singing, we ideally want a conductor on the lines of the composer himself, but what we get is Richard Hickox’s generous and colourful music-making, confidently played by the City of London Sinfonia and recorded in spacious, brass-heavy Chandos sound that obscures the words. Janice Watson’s silvery-voiced Ellen Orford is not a strong personality, affectingly though she sings, and Alan Opie’s vivid Balstrode leads an average supporting cast. 

In Bernard Haitink’s EMI set the virtues are entirely musical, with Haitink’s own warm-hearted good sense, very decent playing from the Royal Opera orchestra, an immaculately judged EMI recording and a cast headed by three beautifully lyrical and expressive English voices in Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen. It’s a real pleasure to hear Rolfe Johnson in Grimes’s hut hauntingly reflecting on what might have been, or Lott’s limpid soprano soaring through the Embroidery aria, or the two of them together reaching for harmony outside the church on Sunday morning. But in the end there’s not enough pain in their relationship, or enough danger in the world created for them by Haitink. This opera is at its most powerful when it looks reality in the face, whereas Rolfe Johnson’s Grimes lives in a dream-world of his own. 

The most recent pair of recordings were both made live. Davis’s second set, recorded at the Barbican, is not a patch on the first. The dead hand of a concert performance hangs over it, with neither Glenn Winslade’s Peter Grimes nor Janice Watson’s Ellen Orford sounding inclined to enter deeply into the drama: he is audibly tested by the role’s vocal difficulties; she is better heard on Hickox’s recording. The performance bursts into life in the orchestral interludes, where the London Symphony Orchestra’s virtuoso playing is a highlight, but even there the sound quality, though technically excellent, has little atmosphere to it. 

The Glyndebourne set, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, is at the opposite pole – a live theatre evening with bumps, bangs and uneven perspectives as singers come and go. Wigglesworth’s intense conducting means there’s always electricity in the air, providing the cast with a constant dramatic charge. In the scene between Grimes and Ellen Orford that opens Act 2, Anthony Dean Griffey and Vivian Tierney test their doubts and fears with psychological acuity. Though less fearsome than Vickers, Griffey’s Grimes has a violent streak, offset by bouts of lyricism that take on a self-pitying tone. Both singers sound strained from time to time, perhaps par for the course in the theatre, but the performance as a whole works well enough, excellently played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and let down only by a recording that’s no match for its studio rivals. 

The DVD recordings

The DVD recordings made live in the opera house move on quickly from the traditional character of the Pears-Britten TV film. Elijah Moshinsky’s Royal Opera production, filmed in 1981, stays in the early Victorian period, but the stage is bare apart from a couple of boats at the back, evoking the open flatness of the Suffolk coastline. The filming is basic, but it captures the performance with great impact. From the burly Peter Grimes of Jon Vickers down to some gritty portrayals among the minor inhabitants of the Borough, this is a community inured to the hard life. Vickers’s brute of a Grimes ideally needs to be seen, not just heard: his larger-than-life portrayal aspires to an almost mythic stature, like a Greek tragic hero wrestling with his fate and finally crushed in a drawn-out mad scene that dissipates into broken-backed crooning. Heather Harper’s Ellen Orford, a woman hardened by experience, is the best on DVD (with the exception of her younger self), and Norman Bailey’s old sea-dog of a Balstrode is the ideal soul mate for her, all powerfully underpinned by Colin Davis’s forceful conducting. But a caveat has to be added that the picture quality of the DVD is very poor for its age, which makes a recommendation difficult. 

A little more than a decade later, English National Opera’s production by Tim Albery moves down the road towards abstract expressionism. There’s nothing on stage at all now (bar a couple of large concrete blocks), and stark lighting turns the Borough into a place of threatening shadows. In the stormy gloom of this production, Philip Langridge’s Grimes becomes the lightning rod for the electricity of the drama. Slight of build, Langridge could never play the heavily built fisherman who dominates in physical terms, as Vickers does. Instead, he looks inwards, exploring the emotional tensions that drive his haunted, gaunt Grimes to breaking point. Alongside him are Janice Cairns as a harsh-sounding Ellen Orford, and Alan Opie, a well-sung Balstrode. There’s very little depth or colour to the orchestral playing and ENO’s orchestra in the 1990s was not the best, though the conductor, David Atherton, pushes the score on single-mindedly. It is a shame that the musical performance is so cold, as the many close-ups in this well-filmed DVD make us feel part of a community where every individual is living the drama.

We reach undiluted expressionism in David Pountney’s Zurich production. Bathed in lurid red and green lighting, this has the Borough locals as a constant presence, sitting high up on chairs that hang from the ceiling. In the theatre the idea may have been striking, but the stage is too cluttered for the small screen and the drama loses its focus. In part, this is because Christopher Ventris, though believable as a hardy fisherman, does not get under the skin of the character, and neither Emily Magee’s lyrically sung Ellen Orford nor Alfred Muff’s Balstrode offers a strong personality. The cultivated Franz Welser-Möst draws finely detailed playing from his Zurich orchestra, but the overall feeling is too urbane. 

The Metropolitan Opera relay from 2008 is a typically high-quality affair. The Met orchestra is the finest on DVD and the colour and detail it gets out of Britten’s orchestral writing is second to none, thanks especially to Donald Runnicles’s brilliant grip as conductor. What happens on stage works at a somewhat lower level: John Doyle’s production is part old-fashioned theatre in Victorian costumes and part stripped-down modernism, with a unit set that (as in the Zurich production) keeps the Borough snoops peering over events from their upstairs windows. In the introduction for the Met cinema relay, Natalie Dessay tells us we are about to see the ‘sad, horrible story of Peter Grimes’, and that is exactly what we get. Anthony Dean Griffey’s Grimes seems a broken character from the outset, hopelessly struggling to keep his violent tendencies at bay and close to tears in his meetings with Patricia Racette’s reserved Ellen Orford. The rest of the cast is excellent. Collectors will be glad of the luxury filming, and the fact that every word is clear, but this remains a very professional stage show in need of a defining personality. 

The essential recommendations are clear. There must be Pears and Britten, there must be Vickers in the Royal Opera’s classic production and there must be Langridge’s intense Grimes. But the exact configuration, when there are audio and video options for each, is tricky. Only the overall choice is clear-cut: more than 50 years on, Britten’s own classic CD set still stands unsurpassed. 

OVERALL CHOICE

Britten • Decca 475 7713DOR2 (Buy from Amazon)

Britten’s 1958 recording has long been one of the classics. Half a century on, it might seem time to move it into the ‘historic’ category, but with Britten bringing a unique understanding to his own music, the sound quality so amazing for its age and the cast so strong, this retains its place at the top of the list. 

DVD CHOICE

Atherton • ArtHaus Musik 100 382 (Buy from Amazon)

The best modern DVD, despite looking dated. The Borough community is observed in compelling detail and Langridge penetrates more deeply into Grimes’s troubled psyche than any other tenor. 

ALTERNATIVE CD CHOICE

Davis • Decca 478 2669DB2 (Buy from Amazon)

With the quality of the DVD of the ROH’s 1970s production so poor, the Davis choice must fall on the CD, where those memorable performances (with Vickers’s ravenously violent Grimes) survive undimmed. 

HISTORIC CHOICE (DVD)

Britten • Decca 074 3261DH (Buy from Amazon)

This TV production, filmed with live sound from multiple angles, was ahead of its time, and it’s perfectly cleaned up by Decca. The opportunity to view Britten and Pears in such a high-quality performance is not to be missed. 

DISCOGRAPHY 

DATE / ARTISTS / RECORD COMPANY & NUMBER (REVIEW DATE) 

1948 Pears Grimes Cross Ellen Orford Royal Op / Goodall (excs) EMI 029006-2 (2/94) Buy from Amazon

1958 Pears Grimes Watson Ellen Orford Royal Op / Britten Decca 475 7713DOR2 (10/59); 467 6822DL2; 475 6020DC8 (8/04); Alto ALC2008 Buy from Amazon

1969 Pears Grimes Harper Ellen Orford LSO / Britten Decca DVD 074 3261DH (9/08); 074 3366DH7 Buy from Amazon

1978 Vickers Grimes Harper Ellen Orford Royal Op / C Davis Philips 462 847-2PM2; Decca 478 2669DB2 (7/99) Buy from Amazon

1981 Vickers Grimes Harper Ellen Orford Royal Op / C Davis WMV 0630 16913-2 Buy from Amazon

1992 Rolfe Johnson Grimes Lott Ellen Orford Royal Op / Haitink EMI   09156-2; 456943-2 (7/93) Buy from Amazon

1994 Langridge Grimes Cairns Ellen Orford ENO / Atherton ArtHaus Musik 100 382 PAL or 100 383 NTSC (11/91) Buy from Amazon

1995 Langridge Grimes Watson Ellen Orford CLS / Hickox Chandos CHAN9447 (5/96) Buy from Amazon

2000 Griffey Grimes Tierney Ellen Orford Glyndebourne Op / Wigglesworth Glyndebourne Fest Op GFOCD00800 (1/11) Buy from Amazon

2004 Winslade Grimes Watson Ellen Orford LSO / C Davis LSO Live LSO0054 (8/04) Buy from Amazon

2005 Ventris Grimes Magee Ellen Orford Zurich Op / Welser-Möst EMI 500971-9 Buy from Amazon

2008 Griffey Grimes Racette Ellen Orford Met Op / Runnicles EMI 217414-9 Buy from Amazon 

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014