The pebbly strand on the east coast of England is wide, cold, and whipped by salt spray. A less auspicious operatic venue could hardly be imagined.
Even so, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival has created a once-in-a-lifetime event to celebrate the centenary of its founder Benjamin Britten. They’ve staged his opera “Peter Grimes” outdoors on Aldeburgh beach, the very location where much of the action takes place, and near where the composer himself lived.
What of rain? Freak tides? Over-excitable seagulls? Without risk, there’s no reward. The shivering singers gave us the most memorable and thrilling “Grimes” ever.
The audience faced out to the North Sea. Designer Leslie Travers built a stage from upturned boats and slatted wooden walkways. Director Tim Albery updated the action to the 1940s (the opera was composed in 1945) in a straightforward and workmanlike production.
It was the setting which provided the kick. When the mysterious first “Sea Interlude” played, with the sounds of real waves slushing on the stones and the sky darkening to purple on the horizon, spines tingled.
At the climax of the opera, Grimes is ordered to climb into his boat, then send it far out to sea and sink it. When the fine tenor Alan Oke, dressed in black oilskins, dragged his craft through the darkness to the merciless, pounding water, it was electrifying.
If you’re wondering why orchestral musicians would expose their precious bassoons and double-basses to freezing gusts and salt spume, the answer is: they didn’t. The accompaniment was cunningly recorded a few days ago by the Britten-Pears Orchestra under conductor Steuart Bedford, and played over loudspeakers.
The chorus were also boosted by a pre-recorded track, and the whole stage ensemble held together amazingly well.
Only the solo singers, a very fine bunch, were microphoned. Giselle Allen, with her gleaming, even sound was particularly affecting as Ellen Orford, the local schoolmistress who tries to befriend the bitter fisherman of the title.
Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music (of which the festival is a component part), said that they’re unlikely ever to attempt such a risky, complicated and expensive venture again. And now “Grimes” will never seem the same. Rating: *****.
Irish composer Gerald Barry has had several works premiered at Aldeburgh. His Oscar Wilde-based opera “The Importance of Being Earnest” (2010) has just received its U.K. stage premiere at the Royal Opera.
It’s a frenetic affair in which fast and jagged vocal lines are delivered in a deadpan, emotionless rat-a-tat style. It’s frequently hilarious.
Barry sets the famous tea-party scene between Cecily (Ida Falk Winland) and Gwendolen (Stephanie Marshall) as a shouting match with megaphones, accompanied by smashed plates and pistol shots. Lady Bracknell is cast as a bass (Alan Ewing).
Though Ramin Gray’s minimalist modern-dress production doesn’t add much to the humor, conductor Tim Murray holds it all together nicely.
A comic opera with real laughs. Fancy that. Rating: ****.
There is a further performance of “Grimes on the Beach” on June 21. The production has been filmed for cinema broadcast later in the year. Information: http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk or +44-1728-687110.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is at the Royal Opera until June 22. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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