Tension and ambiguity all at sea

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Hanover is not on the coast. The sea is accordingly invisible in Barrie Kosky’s new production of Peter Grimes. But you can sense its presence throughout.

Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s enigmatic outsider, is a fisherman, his life circumscribed by the hypocritical puritanism of his fellow villagers, his dreams cloaked in obscurity, his past dubious. The sea itself is Britten’s main protagonist, its grey moods and latent violence giving his 1945 opera its atmosphere. Peter Grimes has open skies and dank claustrophobia, pounding storms and shimmering calm. You cannot leave the sea out completely.

Nor does Kosky. Instead of showing us the pebbled Suffolk coast that fictitious Grimes shared with factual Britten, he evokes its contemporary echo. The stage is bare except for wooden ships’ crates. These form the building-blocks of his characters’ lives. They carry them, lean against them, sit on them, pile them up, live in them, love on them. Workers in glistening oilskins and sea-boots tramp across the stage, and a giant crane’s hook descends to imply a wharf.

The one thing Kosky fails to conjure is the sea’s mystique, a vital element in Britten’s opera. Things begin on the wrong foot, with Grimes’ village trial. The plastic-covered corpse of the dead apprentice is wheeled into the improvised courtroom, and gradually unveiled as the scene progresses. We see the boy’s chalk-coloured feet, his naked body and finally his head, bruised and bloodied. Grimes is guilty, and the whole town knows.

With this, Kosky loses half of the work’s tension and ambiguity. The other half goes with Kosky’s portrayal of the villagers of the Borough. Britten’s characters are superficially upright citizens, good folk who go to church on Sunday and are seen to do the right thing. Only as the opera unfolds are the cracks revealed, the covert lechery, the prostitution that nobody talks about, the widow’s laudanum habit, the Methodist preacher’s drunkenness. Kosky’s citizens are depraved from the beginning, groping and dry-humping each other, brawling, shooting up and urinating in public. There is no mask of good behaviour to make sense of the communal grudge against Grimes, no height from which anyone could fall.

Alfred Mayerhofer’s ugly, small-town German proletariat costumes do not help. Grimes, ill-dressed and awkward, still makes a plausible outsider, but Kosky is so absorbed in exposing the Borough’s sins that he loses sight of its surface, and leaves us with no way to sympathise with anyone, least of all the clearly violent Grimes.

Last Thursday’s premiere was ill-fated in more ways than one. A wave of flu had swept through the cast in the previous days, leaving one singer sick, one out of action and one voiceless. Brigitta Hahn was flown in at the 11th hour to sing the role of Ellen Orford as Kelly God mimed her part on the stage, a solution that is always at best a compromise, especially for such an important figure. Hahn sang creditably. So did Robert Künzli, in the pivotal title role. Like all heroic tenors faced with the part he battled audibly with the high lyrical passages, but made much of its passionate expressive potential.

The rest of the cast ranged from acceptable to mediocre, the choir was not on top form, and good intonation seemed well down the list of the evening’s priorities. Montagu Slater’s text was often garbled or inaudible and the conductor Wolfgang Bozic displayed neither a keen sense of the brittle, neurotic style that can make this score crackle, nor a particular facility for keeping his forces together.

When Grimes, clothed by the mob as a clown, sank finally down into his own packing-crate, it was hard to care at all. From a team that can do so much better, this was a big disappointment.
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