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The sea disappears into an endless horizon. The waves make a pounding sound as they crash on to the shingle beach. There are gull cries, scurries of wind, flickers of reflected sun, while a small fishing boat is manhandled down to the water’s edge.
The setting is not some tropical shoreline; it is the chill Suffolk seafront, and I am watching it on a DVD of this summer’s open-air Peter Grimes at the Aldeburgh Festival. Staged on the shelving beach, with the North Sea as its backdrop, the production married Benjamin Britten’s most popular opera to the setting that inspired it. The audience sat on specially erected beach-stands and confronted the elements. In the second half the growing darkness, pierced by special lighting effects, only added to the starkness of the scene.
If I had to choose one event to characterise the Britten centenary, this would be it. Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh’s beach may not have done much to illuminate the work’s allegorical hinterland, but it was an event special to a time and place. Throughout 2013, Britten made an impact that even the guardians of his estate – the Britten-Pears Foundation, Aldeburgh Music and the publishers Boosey & Hawkes – could not have dreamt of as they developed their centenary strategy.
Musical anniversaries are there to inspire, to foster a unique body of work, to tell us new or unfamiliar things about a composer – and create a legacy. If you can’t do that, you might as well not bother. The Britten centenary did all these things. It yielded first stagings for Britten’s operas in Russia and China. It took his Friday Afternoons singing project to hundreds of schools across the UK and beyond, reminding us of his mantra that music – his music – must be useful.
It also shone a spotlight on his less “popular” (but no less inspired) work, such as the Canticles, the Church Parables, the string quartets, the 1930s film scores, The Rape of Lucretia – the latter in a touring Glyndebourne production that made more sense than any previous performance I had seen. And let’s not forget the song cycles, which yielded my recording of the year in the Ian Bostridge-Antonio Pappano CD of Winter Words, Who are these Children? and others.
On a wider front, in Paul Kildea’s balanced new biography and films by Tony Palmer and John Bridcut, the Britten centenary banished the “gay stigma” to the dustbin of history. For most of Britten’s lifetime, homosexuality was a cross he had to bear. But in an age that is coming to terms with gay priests and gay marriage, the composer’s sexuality seems increasingly like a red herring. While it undoubtedly influenced the issues he dealt with in his operas, the centenary has profiled a larger figure – the prophet-pacifist, the educationist, the workaholic creator-performer whose oeuvre wrestles with key issues about why we are here and why we behave the way we do.
How different this was to most composer anniversaries – not least the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries, which have dominated programme choices in the world’s opera houses for much of the past 12 months. The classical music industry loves anniversaries: they are an excuse for lazy programming. Even if you love the music of Richard Strauss, as I do, it will be hard to drum up much enthusiasm for his 150th birthday next year, because a 150th is pretty insignificant and Strauss’s music is already pretty much everywhere. But you can bet the anniversary will be trumpeted to justify this or that random performance, with no added artistic significance.
As for Rameau’s upcoming 250th, who cares? Some sort of revival seems to be under way – think of English National Opera’s Castor et Pollux and Glyndebourne’s Hippolyte et Aricie. But it’s not yet enough to goad promoters to make a special effort, and give Rameau’s operas the lavish investment they demand, for a mere 250th.
A centenary or bicentenary is different, but even these have to be handled sensitively. Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s centenary in 2013 should have been a catalyst for widespread enlightenment. It started well with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert series, but even that didn’t go deep. Thereafter, apart from a handful of Proms performances, the anniversary petered out. Fastidiously conceived and wonderfully allusive, Lutoslawski’s music is accessible enough. Most conductors are too lazy to learn it. This was a missed opportunity.
Will the same happen with next year’s centenary of his compatriot Andrzej Panufnik? Though equally well known in London during his lifetime, Panufnik was a lesser figure than Lutoslawski, so less is expected. Let’s see.
For all their artistic veneer, what most musical anniversaries tell us is that promoters have to think commercially. On that score, Verdi and Wagner were a safe bet – though the Verdi bicentenary came too soon after the 2001 centenary of his death to yield much in the way of insights. That year “stole” all the best initiatives, such as Nicholas Payne’s idea of juxtaposing the original and revised versions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra for London’s Royal Opera.
This year produced nothing as revealing: the same company’s courageous attempt at the original Paris version of Les Vêpres siciliennes excised the ballet music and went off at half-cock. Doubtless it was considered too risky to essay Oberto, Un giorno di regno, I due Foscari or I Lombardi, but some adventuresome German companies pulled off those very titles. That is the kind of thing anniversaries are for.
And Wagner? His oeuvre is already so ubiquitous, and discussion of its meaning so thoroughgoing, that there was little the bicentenary could add – other than, perhaps, an epoque-defining production on the lines of the late, lamented Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Ring on the centenary of its first Bayreuth performances. No such luck in 2013: if anything, some of the past year’s productions – Welsh National Opera’s Lohengrin, Longborough’s Ring – seemed to herald a wave of simplicity in Wagner interpretation. Given the theatrical success of those two shows, that may be no bad thing. Wagner does not always need the mystique and opacity of the two Parsifal productions I caught towards the end of the year in Stockholm and London – both of them spellbinding.
Those experiences helped to put Aldeburgh’s beach production into some perspective. Peter Grimes had never previously been staged in the seaside town where the composer lived and worked – its musical demands are too big for indoor venues there – so the festival had to come up with an imaginative solution.
What I liked about it was that Aldeburgh was bonkers enough to do it: someone took the risk of experimenting in the place where the opera’s characters and community resonate most strongly. Thanks to the film, expertly directed by Margaret Williams, ‘Peter Grimes’ on Aldeburgh beach cannot be dismissed as a local event. The results are there for all to see in perpetuity.
That said, the project wasn’t entirely successful. The sprawling set, resembling a storm-tossed promenade, was short on spectacle. Microphones were visible on singers’ faces. By attempting a close, naturalistic perspective, the camera created a less visceral experience than the theatre. Most serious, by offering literal images of sky, sea and shore, it stifled the imagination.
Britten did it better, because all of these elements are already built into the score. They resonate there more powerfully because the music is an exaggerated, romanticised version of a reality that will never live up to what our imagination can tell us.
Such is the gift of a great composer, one whose standing in the pantheon – thanks to this anniversary – is noticeably higher than it was a mere 12 months ago.