Aldeburgh's Grimes on the Beach was a moving experience for those prepared to weather the storm
For weeks the excitement had been building: it was an inspired idea to set Grimes firmly in his place during Britten’s centenary year, but could modern theatre technology outwit the weather? The answer on Monday night was a resounding YES… if you were wearing enough coats, gloves, hats and rugs to enjoy it. The rain held off, the wind was persistent but not gale-force and the music came across loud and clear, thanks to the clever mixing and balancing by Sound Intermedia, of pre-recorded orchestra (Britten-Pears Orchestra) and chorus, live but unmiked chorus (Chorus of Opera North and Guildhall School), and miked soloists, all conducted by Britten expert Steuart Bedford.
Another voice could be heard in this extraordinary production: that of nature itself. Waves crashed and sucked on the pebbles, the wind screamed through the lighting rig and rumbled into the soloists’ face-mikes. As the women of the Borough tried to pin their wet washing on the flimsy line, the wind whipped it from their cold fingers and the sheets cracked like ice.
And the light – who could have asked for a better backdrop than the puffy clouds in a blue-grey sky which gradually pinkened as the sun set behind us? When darkness finally fell, the expertise of lighting designer Lucy Carter took over to create lurid storm scenes or a Sunday-morning glare. The sky and the roiling grey North Sea almost, but not quite, eclipsed Leslie Travers’ organic set, a series of duckboard ramps studded with the bleached hulls of local fishing boats, spread along the beach like a ruined village.
Director Tim Albery peopled every part of this wide set to create the impression of a town at work; the downside of this abundance of activity was that it was sometimes hard to focus on the singers involved, or even to locate them. When just a few characters were alone on the huge stage, our attention was riveted. The Act 2 scene between Ellen and Peter was unbearably poignant, before it descended into violence. The natural setting played its part beautifully. When Peter stood atop his boat-like hut to address the stars, no theatrical effect could compare with the foggy blackness towering above him.
Alan Oke made Grimes a nervy, energetic figure, his phrases were brisk and punchy rather than legato or lingering; his top notes were sublime. I loved the warmth of Ellen (Giselle Allen)’s tone and how, unhampered by the wind, her high notes emerged clear and bell-like. In 40s shapeless dress and crimped hair, she looked the part of the faded schoolmistress. Gaynor Keeble as Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs Sedley and David Kempster as Captain Balstrode were all excellent. In these circumstances, amplifying the voices brought out their richness and individual qualities.
It wasn’t the best performance I’ve ever heard (for that you need the CD recorded by these forces two weeks before in rehearsal, and now out on Signum Classics). But it was an unforgettable experience that caught the spirit and the substance of Britten’s inspiration: the Suffolk seascape, particularly the beach at Aldeburgh, the burghers and the fishing community. I imagined Benjamin Britten there last night, surrounded by his Aldeburgh friends, swaddled in rugs with a favourite dachshund at his feet, enjoying every minute of this visionary production.
A film crew is recording the performances, so anyone who didn’t get a ticket to see Grimes on the Beach on a cold June night, can see it in cinemas this September.