Britten, Benjamin


GrimesBenjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitah, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson, Francesco Malvuccio | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The main strength of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character. That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera. One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work. The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones. In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work. With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that’s exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer’s centenary year.

The principal theme of Peter Grimes is one that underlies much of Britten’s work and is evidently one that has significance and meaning for the composer himself - the corruption of innocence. That theme is developed in a much wider context however here in Britten’s first fully orchestrated opera than it is, for example, in The Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd. At the same time, Peter Grimes itself is a much more intimate and personal case, since it takes in the circumstances of individual identity that is corrupted by the nature of the wider society in which it struggles to exist. This is a society where money is respected and where what is deemed respectable behaviour is determined by the nasty, narrow-minded parochialism, wagging tongues, gossip and pointing the finger at others.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You don’t have to look far beyond the headlines of today’s Daily Mail to see that those attitudes persist and are not confined to small English seaside towns. Based on a poem by George Crabbe called ‘The Borough‘, I’m sure that’s exactly what Benjamin Britten wanted to get across. An unconventional outsider, himself the subject of gossip, rumours and attacks in the press, living at the time in California with his partner Peter Pears as a conscientious objector against the war, this was a subject that was close to the composer’s heart. Britten’s approach to the work is consequently all the more daring and challenging for Peter Grimes not in any way being painted as sympathetic character, but he’s certainly preferable to the vicious, prejudiced mob who hound him for his inability to behave in any conventional manner.

Who is really to blame for what happens to the fisherman’s apprentices? By today’s standards Grimes would hardly meet regulations governing health and safety or child employment legislation and social services would undoubtedly have something to say about allowing children to be in close contact with such an individual. Ultimately however the pressures placed on Grimes that drive him to make mistakes are those of social acceptance. He may want to marry Ellen Orford, but he needs to earn enough money to make that alliance worthy in the eyes of the general public and he consequently takes risks that place the young boys in his care in unacceptable levels of danger. It’s the interference and the spreading of gossip by busybodies that create such an environment of instability and uncertainty that things inevitably take a turn for the worst.

There are no easy answers to be found in such a situation and all the complexity of the character of Peter Grimes and his reaction against social norms is there within Britten’s score. And more besides, the composer’s own sensibility refracted through Crabbe’s drama in an intriguing and personal way. Britten finds a language for the anti-hero individual set against the mob in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and in Berg’s Wozzeck, but the expression is entirely Britten’s own and its temperament is completely English. His first traditionally structured and fully orchestrated opera, there’s consequently a sweep to Peter Grimes that you don’t find in any of Britten’s other works, the score weaving in sea-shanties to haunting and sinister effect, creating an evocation of lives being subject to the brutal force of tides - tides of public opinion as much as the sea.

You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to these rhythms, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work. There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the swells to rise and the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable. There are no concerns about the singing either, but wisely that’s because there’s a predominately English/British cast. John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character. Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton’s Ellen Orford. It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance. With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.

The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context. (It’s nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance). All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones. You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements. Whether it’s Auntie’s “nieces” swaying down the street in their high-heels curling fingers through hair, whether it’s figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it’s more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it’s as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten’s music.

Stuart Laing’s sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with. All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it. There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated - in a static kind of way - as the work goes on. The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and “boxed-in”, again reflecting the nature of this society. Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on. It’s by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn’t supposed to be.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition. The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean. The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss. There’s also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.

Benjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

NI Opera, 2012 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Fiona Murphy, Andrew Tortise, Giselle Allen, Yvonne Howard, Lucia Vernon, Thomas Copeland | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 2 March 2012

There was nothing too clever attempted in NI Opera’s new production of The Turn of the Screw, certainly nothing as ambitious as their award-winning production of Tosca on the walls of Derry City, but Britten’s atmospheric little chamber piece doesn’t really need anything more than an intimate environment to achieve optimum effect, and that was certainly achieved with the choice of venue at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey. The attention to detail then was in letting the music and libretto of this powerful little piece speak for itself, and with the benefit of an excellent cast of fine singers that was admirably achieved.

Screw
This is the third production from the recently formed NI Opera that I’ve seen at the Theatre at the Mill (with only one production so far, Hansel and Gretel, at the more traditional venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast), and while one of those productions was a scaled-down romp through Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (in conjunction with Scottish Opera), the venue has been particularly well-suited to the theatrical intimacy of something like Menotti’s The Medium and now with Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The smaller-scale staging of course makes the works suitable for touring – an important remit of the opera company to attract new audiences from traditionally neglected parts of the province – but it’s also the best way to introduce an audience to the close relationship between a music score and a theatrical performance that takes expression to another level, and in that respect The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the most challenging of the NI Opera productions thus far.

Henry James’s novella is well-enough known, adapted numerous times for TV and cinema, and highly influential in the field of Victorian ghost stories because of the dark ambiguities that lie at the heart of the work. The story of a Governess who is engaged to look after two children, Flora and Miles, on a country estate, there are disturbing hints of child abuse or at least bad influence in the children’s relationship with two former servants, Quint and Miss Jessel, who had been engaged there previously. The Governess, half in love with the guardian of the children but forbidden from disturbing from his work in the city on any pretext, seems to conjure the spirits of the malevolent former servants – both now dead – partly out of concern for strange behaviour she witnesses in the children, partly from her own repressed urges at the suggestion of Quint and Miss Jessel’s scandalous behaviour, and partly as an excuse to get in touch with the children’s guardian.

Nothing however can be pinned-down to simple cause and effect in The Turn of the Screw and there’s no easy separation of rational and supernatural. All of what happens could be caused by the projections of the mind of the Governess, her behaviour, repression, suspicion and hysteria (heighted by stories told to her by housekeeper Mrs Grose) and her desire to protect the innocence of the children from baser adult desires (that she herself is subject to), in turn creating its own pernicious stifling repressive atmosphere. Or it could indeed be that she and the children do indeed operate under the influence of past events instigated by Quint and Miss Jessel, who are shown as ghosts and apparitions who appear throughout the work and seem to interact with the children, awakening troubling memories.

Screw

The Turn of the Screw is by no means then an easy work on a narrative or musical level, particularly for a newer audience in a non-traditional venue for an opera, but the power of the work and its ability to provoke and unsettle can surely be felt by anyone. It’s not just about creating effects with half-glimpsed apparitions in dark rooms, but it’s rather in the haunting motifs of the score and the singing that other ambiguities and unsettling ideas are suggested. If the set designed by Annemarie Woods for the NI Opera production tended towards functional minimalism, and the direction of Oliver Mears didn’t seem to attempt to add any new conceptual spin to the story, it was all the more to allow the score to speak of these ambiguities itself and not point the listener towards any safe or easy conclusion.

The sets in fact, were highly effective, not only suggesting mood and location with the shifting of walls, doors and windows, but in their arrangement being capable of opening up space or closing it down with suffocating angles. Mears directorial touches did emphasise some unnatural closeness developing in the physical contact between the Governess and Miles, but this relationship with the younger boy is undoubtedly a crucial aspect of the work, certainly in as far as it concerns Britten and his own inclinations (or indeed those of Henry James), and it shouldn’t be overlooked. At the same time, it didn’t attempt to impose a definitive reading, and it’s left – as it should be – to each member of the audience to draw their own conclusions. The Turn of the Screw can indeed be just a ghost story if that’s all you want to see in it, and Britten’s music can be seen as purely spectrally unsettling as well as being suggestive of other abstract notions and concepts.

While the score – brilliantly performed by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Chalmers – and the setting for the drama provided much to consider in its own terms, they were most successful in the relationship it formed with the singers. Really, the singing in all the principal roles was beyond reproach, with Fiona Murphy pushing all the ambiguities of the role of the Governess with some fine singing, Andrew Tortise a seductively dangerous Quint, and Giselle Allen reprising the role of Miss Jessel that she performed last year to such powerful effect at Glyndebourne. Yvonne Howard however deserves special mention for Mrs Grose, one of the best singers I’ve heard in the role. The children also, critical to the whole ambiguity between innocence and experience in the opera were, were played well by Lucia Vernon and particularly young Thomas Copeland, who sang Miles wonderfully, his refrain of ‘Malo’ simultaneously wistful, regretful and sinister, and his famous condemnation of Quint at the finale was powerfully effective.

ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.

Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.