When concerts can be as good as stagings

25 Aug

I’ve just blogged about the excellent Yeomen of the Guard at the Proms and now, less than a week later, we have a trulyoutstanding Peter Grimes in a concert in which I barely missed the staging.  With these and the Opera North Ring, it makes you feel that these concerts are not just cheapskate ways of getting some sort of performance of an opera but actually viable ways of producing a great operatic experience.  I remember also that probably the finest performance of Macbeth that I’ve seen was at the ROH when they’d over-estimated the problems of doing two new productions when you have the builders in and turned Phyllida Lloyd’s new production into a concert staging.

The common theme of all of those was that they had been wonderfully prepared and, in the case of two of them, had been prepared for or arose out of a full staging.  So what are the advantages?  First, the singers are in front of the orchestra engaging with each other. They are closer to the audience and there’s no chasm between them and us – there’s a direct engagement which is much more difficult in an opera house.  They don’t have complex sets or moves to negotiate and this enables them to concentrate on the acting and the essence of the performance.  There are also advantages in having the orchestra in full view, particularly in a piece like Grimes where the show-piece interludes benefit from the orchestra being visible.

There are disadvantages, of course.  If a singer isn’t quite prepared then the exposure shows (all here were magnficent).  The balance can sometimes be distorted – having the chorus and organ in the hall rather than offstage meant that they become the focus of the Ellen/John scene and (at least from where I was sitting) overwhelmed Amanda Roocroft when they really should have been no more than the background.  And, in Grimes, the chorus is a crucial part of the action and having them behind the orchestra and away from the principals meant they seemed separate – you had to make allowances.

Here these disadvantages were only minor.  The lynch mob in Act III was as terrifying as I have ever heard in the theatre.  The final scenes were as rivetting and moving as ever – you needed to make no allowances at all for Stuart Skelton, dishevelled, bare-footed, twitching and entirely withdrawn into his own nightmare for his last mad-scene.  And the pub scene was as well observed, witty and carefully delineated as it ever has been in a stage production.  You wouldn’t want to see Grimes like this all the time, but this provided the essence to give us among the finest performances of it that I’ve seen.

Skelton, as we know from the 2009 performances, is an outstanding Grimes, capable of managing both the brutality and sheer tenderness of the monologues.  He is more tender and sings more beautifully than Vickers and has greater strength and sheer brutality than either Rolfe-Johnson or Langridge.  I don’t think I’ve seen a more complete performance.

He was marvellously supported.  So far I’ve been a bit sceptical about Iain Paterson.  My apologies to him.  His Balstrode was outstandingly sung – displaying a huge voice, beautifully controlled and with outstanding diction – and committedly acted.  This was all the more creditable because he wasn’t part of the original production.  What struck me above all was how I wanted to hear him in Wagner and, particularly as Wotan.  In these straitened times there’s probably no hope of an ENO Ring to give him the opportunity, but we can dream…. Amanda Roocroft was a lovely Ellen, my only concern being that her words weren’t as clear as other Ellens have managed – the Embroidery song always causes problems but she just wasn’t clear enough at the opening of Act II, even when she wasn’t being drowned by the chorus.

Mark Richardson stood in competently as Swallow and the rest of the cast were as at the ENO production and it was marvellous to see such a gallery of detailed, thoughtful impersonations – Felicity Palmer marvellous and unexaggerated as Mrs Sedley, Leigh Melrose really good as Ned Keene and Michael Colvin a mad Bob Boles.  I felt that Rebecca du Pont Davies as Auntie and Darren Jeffrey as Hobson lost most from the absence of David Alden’s production: there they were given very specific, interesting aspects to the characters – Hobson as a probable abuser of boys himself and Auntie’s louche lesbianism didn’t come across so obviously.

Edward Gardner conducted surely – you were gripped by the drama, surely paced, building up the tension and allowing the full terror of the mob to explode.  The ENO chorus and orchestra were on outstanding form and everyone cohered to put across the pathos, the wit and the sheer terror and tragedy of this wonderful opera.

The worst irritation was the audience.  This one had been listened attentively and engrossed, then you come to those massive chorus cries of “Grimes” in Act III and people start applauding after the first one.  It’s a tribute to the performance that we were able to recover concentration almost immediately and the remain cries were just as terrifying as they should be.

This was one of those evening which reminded me of why I go to the opera – terrifying, moving, thought-provoking and entirely involving.

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