BRITTEN Peter Grimes
Even a decade ago a truly modern production of a British opera by a Brit team and with many Brits in the cast would have been almost unthinkable in Milan. Judging by some sustained booing at curtain call, some still feel like that – but Stéphane Lissner’s determined Intendantship has finally brought contemporary international music theatre to Italy’s premiere house.
This 2012 Grimes is set in a town of today with bright, crude dayglo colours, plentiful model seagulls – that’s intentionally all we really get of the sea – and a rash of St George’s flags for the Act 3 Moot Hall dance. While noting that traditionalists may feel deprived of fishing boats and nets – precisely one rope appears when Grimes sings about it in Act 1 – I do not wish to distract with more details of an updating which takes us to around the 1980s, because the pride and joy of Richard Jones’s production, not to be missed, is its unerring grasp of the psychology and tiered relationship of all the characters. This goes far beyond the fact that the ‘nieces’ are tarty girls on the make who’ve perhaps smoked too many spliffs, that Keene is a mixture of dealer and game-show host (his every gesture copied from TV) or that Grimes himself, a massive performance from John Graham-Hall, is a stressed-out obsessive/depressive with shaking hands and head. When he tells the boy ‘Look, the whole sea’s boiling’, we know (tragically) there’s not a single fish to be seen.
The handling of the so-important chorus part as a tribal unit, often twitching and dancing in an unnaturalistic manner (try the run-up to the climactic manhunt cries of ‘Peter Grimes’ in Act 3), is a major, original achievement for Jones and his movement director Sarah Fahie. In the pit Robin Ticciati’s conducting and musical interpretation closely back what Jones and Fahie and designer Stewart Laing are doing. Ticciati eschews the weighty, rather Germanic approach of older conductors to this score (Britten himself, Colin Davis), concentrating (like Goodall or Hickox) on rhythmic and instrumental subtleties and the sheer reason why the music is like it is. This storm (midway through Act 1) won’t blow your head off with sheer decibels but it will with its musical development.
Sound is good, picture ditto but I think the frequent cut-away shots taken from high stage gallery left – a view that only the ghosts of 18th-century noble patrons would have – are a waste. Hugely recommended; certainly, alongside David Pountney’s Zurich production (another expat creation), an outstanding Grimes of our time and the clearest evocation of the scares and terrors that lie beneath the work. And watch closely at the very end.